In soul music certain artists become such icons it becomes unnecessary to refer to them by their surname. Mention they by first name only and no further explanation is necessary. There’s Stevie, Luther, Otis, Marvin Isaac, Sly, Al, Curtis and Michael. Oh, and you can’t forget about Prince (but he made it easy), And then there’s Bill.
Bill? Bill who? Not ringing any bells? His songs surely will. “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the ubiquitous “Lean On Me” are a few of the great songs performed by the most important person to emerge from Slab Rock, West Virgina, William Harrison “Bill” Withers Jr. Just plain old Bill Withers. The blue collar, working man and nine-year Navy vet who made music like nobody has before, after or since.
Everybody likes to say they’re an original but only a few actually are. Bill Withers didn’t come on stage in leather, spandex, sporting fringe, headbands and platform heels. He didn’t shake his ass, pump his fist or strip down to his underwear. Bill Withers didn’t descend from the lights in a mothership. Didn’t have any dancing girls, laser light shows, or killer choreographed dance steps. More often than not he’d just walk out on stage in jeans, a t-shirt and an acoustic guitar. He’d just sit on a stool, sing his songs, tell a story or two of what the song he was about to sing was about and when he was done, he’d say “good night” and leave. From the casual way he dressed and his low-key demeanor it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Bill driving the band’s tour bus.
If I were going to sum up the way Withers presented himself and the type of music he made the word would be understated. He was an unassuming man who made music that had no pretension and not a shred of interest in what the prevailing trends were in music. Even while disco dominated the airwaves, Withers showed no interest in pandering to popularity. I don’t think there’s an essential Bill Withers album and the many compilation “best of’s” are uneven or incomplete. The latest example of this is the 2009 Playlist: The Very Best of Bill Withers, as misleading a title as ever there was as it passes on hits such as “Use Me,” “Just the Two of Us” (his duet with Grover Washington Jr.) and even “Aint No Sunshine,” and “Lean On Me” substituting live versions instead. This package is a complete gyp, but for my taste the greatest omission is leaving “Lovely Day” off a supposed “very best of.”
Which is close to a criminal offense because “Lovely Day,” the high watermark of the 1977 album Menagerie is a soulfully stunning showcase of Withers’ underrated vocal power. Everything about the song is perfection. Withers co-wrote the song with Skip Scarborough who had other successes with Earth, Wind and Fire and Mother’s Finest with “Love Changes.” The band is led by Ray Parker Jr., and his sidekick, Jerry Knight who would go to craft their own hits in Raydio, but Withers is the star here as his singing is so buoyant and powerful it could make the most miserable morning in the dead of winter feel like the first day of spring. Withers holds the last note of the song for a jaw-dropping 18 seconds. If 18 seconds doesn’t sound like much, play the song and see how long you can do it without gasping for air. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
I cannot listen to that song without being blown away by what Withers does by holding that note! To be sure there are better singers than Bill Withers who can belt it out to the back rows of a concert hall and sheer vocal power is not in short supply, but that’s not exactly the same thing going on here. If someone were to attempt this song in 2010, you’d swear it had to be some studio slight-of-hand being employed to hit and hold a note that long.
Withers never fit comfortably in the music star-making machinery and at the age of 32 he walked away from it. He released Watching You, Watching Me in 1985. He hasn’t made a new album of music since .
At age 71, Withers is enjoying something of mini-revivial. He’s the subject of a documentary, Still Bill, that answers the question, “Whatever happened to Bill Withers?” Les Payne, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist penned an article about the film for The Root.
Still Bill plays near the surface of this brooding, complex man. There’s a moving account of the artists’ strong relationship with his second wife and children, a devotion that all but explains why he left the performing stage. (Those with long memories will be disappointed that the film skips over his reportedly tumultuous marriage to actress Denise Nicholas.)
As with most earnest artists, Withers’ gift is as mysterious as it is unmistakable. “I’m just a conduit,” he said. “I walk around, and sometimes I’m scratching myself and things cross my mind. So I don’t know where any of that stuff comes from. People ask about songs and things like that, so I don’t know. It’s just the way I am, I guess.”
The artist attributes much of his personality to his grandmother immortalized in one of his classic tunes, “Grandma’s Hands.” In their “valuable role, grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid,” as Withers was a stutterer among his many siblings.
“I wonder what it would have been like if my grandmothers had been on crack,” mused the songwriter, activating his consciousness about the perils of urban street life. “You can tell how much difference it makes in people’s lives when they get good ones.”
There is a curious scene in Still Bill in which the West Virginia wordsmith needles the scholarly antics of Cornel West and his sidekick, Tavis Smiley. Pressing the singer about blacks who “sell out,” the duo, appearing to these tired eyes as poseurs on the make, attempted to explain the term to Withers who neatly cut the ground from beneath him. After rejecting Smiley’s very use of the term “sell-out,” Withers embraced it not as a negative but as a positive. The rattled TV host handed off to the professor who attempted to explain “authenticity” by snatching loose quotes from Shakespeare and heaving them at the songwriter of plain lyrics who rejects the easy stereotype slur.
Born on the Fourth of July, Bill Withers is a prototype omni-American of the sort prescribed by Albert Murray, the great social critic. Living the show-business life for a dozen years, Withers refused to bend his art under the wretched demands of the corrupt music industry.
The documentary got past my radar when it first came out, but now that I’m aware of it I’ll have to hunt it down. Withers says he has no interest in any sort of “comeback,” preferring to let the enduring legacy of his music do the talking He’s not broke. He’s not a hermit living in a cabin in the woods. He’s happy to just be alive and kicking. In the film he says, “I’m like pennies in your pocket. You know they’re there, but you don’t think about them.”
How utterly Bill Withers is that?