Bill Withers: An Appreciation
Written by Tom Shaker on April 6, 2020
Since I’ve been hosting my show, many soul legends have passed. We’ve lost the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin; The Godfather of Soul, James Brown; Bobby Womack, Billy Paul and Solomon Burke (our first Soul Serenade interview), to name just a few. The passing of Bill Withers last week at 81 from heart complications hit hard. His sound wasn’t Atlantic, wasn’t Stax, and it sure wasn’t Motown. His music transcended all of that. Sure, he was known as a soul singer but, in my opinion, he was one of the greatest American singer/songwriters ever.
My friend and fellow WICN host Mark Lynch always tells me that soul music is the most “emotional” type of music. Being the host of The Soul Serenade, I, of course, couldn’t agree more–it’s one of the reasons that I’ve been hosting the show for almost 14 years and it still hasn’t gotten boring!
Bill Withers’ music has been there from my first show in 2006 to my most recent one. And, while I never met the man, I wish I had. He seemed very “normal,” for lack of a better word. A guy you’d like to have a cup of coffee with. He joined the Navy after high school and also worked as a milkman and factory worker before he started a career in music. His first album, “Just As I Am,” features a picture of him with his lunch pail on the cover. He was born on the 4th of July, 1938, in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, the last of six children. He stuttered through his teen years. Perhaps that helped with his direct, honest “voice” as a soul artist. He didn’t mince words because he couldn’t.
Bill Withers was as real as you can get. He was content being just a “regular guy” as he liked to describe himself. Sure, he wrote two of the greatest American pop songs ever recorded with “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me,” but his song catalog goes much deeper than that. Songs like “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” “Better off Dead,” “Who Is He (and What Is He To You),” and “Harlem” as well as many others make him a legend.
Speaking of those two iconic songs, they appeared early on in his short musical career, on his first two albums for Sussex Records. And, I’m assuming, like me, you could “name that tune” in a note or two; that’s how ingrained those songs are in our culture and our minds. With just those two songs about love, loss and friendship, Bill Withers shows how the power of music can get us through anything. “Lean On Me” is once again back in the spotlight as we struggle through COVID-19.
His first album was produced by none other than Booker T. Jones from the Stax house band Booker T & The MG’s. Jones was smart enough to recognize the emotional honesty in Withers’ voice and lyrics and kept the production as simple as possible. He basically used his MG’s band, except for guitarist Steve Cropper (who was unavailable). Booker got another guitarist by the name of Stephen Stills for the gig.
Bill had an intimacy in his music that was unique. He was gritty funk, he was R & B, he was gospel, he was sophisticated disco, he was one of a kind. His voice made you think he was singing to you but his lyrics were universally intimate. And more than anything, his honesty shone through all his recordings. Withers wrote about his grandma, Vietnam vets, alcoholism, suicide and relationships. Things we all deal with in our lives.
Questlove, the drummer for The Roots, told Rolling Stone magazine in 2015 that Bill is the “last African-American everyman. Bill Withers is the closest thing Black people have to Bruce Springsteen.”
As I write this, I’m listening to his wonderful box set “The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums.” It contains every album he recorded. The quality of his music always seems stripped-down, even with strings, background singers, a horn section and full band. His phrasing, the way he draws out certain words, make each song a memorable experience. If you haven’t heard it in a while, re-listen to his classic song “Use Me” from his second LP Still Bill. It’ll blow you away! Also highly recommended are the songs “The Best You Can Be” and “I Wish You Well” from his album Making Music.
His songs are staples at weddings, graduations, backyard parties, and inaugurations. Whenever there’s a perfect weekend outside, the requests pour in on Monday night for his classic “Lovely Day.”
Be sure to check out his “Live at Carnegie Hall” album too, in its entirety. The band is in a stone groove, and Bill’s vocals shine! As good as the music is, its Bill’s personality that makes this album so memorable. His intro to “Grandma’s Hands” is priceless. Rolling Stone made this 1973 recording one of the 50 greatest live albums of all time.
Bill’s music is timeless–especially when you consider he gave up on the music industry in 1985. He literally just walked away from a career that garnered nine Grammy nominations and three Grammy awards when he found he was losing control over his music. He couldn’t stand the liars, backstabbers and b.s. he came across, especially with record company people.
He referred to A&R (the artist & repertoire folks) as “Antagonistic & Redundant.” He was a man of principle, a man who knew his priorities, a man who was at peace with himself. After he left the music business, he never looked back, leading a full life as a father and husband.
Without a new recording, a tour, or even singing a single note, Bill had something of a comeback in 2015. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. While his acceptance speech went longer than anticipated, it was considered by many the highlight of the evening. Later that year a tribute concert, 34 years after he recorded his iconic live album, was held at Carnegie Hall. Artists from all genres of music sang his songs including Dr. John, Gregory Porter, Keb’ Mo,’ Ed Sheeran and Valerie Simpson. Bill Withers was there and came on stage at the end of the concert, a benefit for stuttering children, but refused to sing. In a New York Times article, he was quoted as saying “I didn’t respond to other people’s pressure at 35. I haven’t improved at 77.”
His music has and will always be with us. Remember the film “Lean On Me” from 1989, starring Morgan Freeman? Many other movies featured his music, including “Jerry McGuire,” “The Hangover,” “American Beauty,” and “The Secret Life Of Pets.” His music has been covered and sampled by many artists including Barbara Streisand, John Legend, The Black-Eyed Peas, Dr. Dre & Kanye West.
And, after you’ve listened to all this great music, take a look at “Still Bill,” the 2009 documentary about his life. Film critic Roger Ebert had this to say about the doc: “Withers seems as close to everyday Zen as I can imagine. He talks a great deal about his philosophy, to be sure, but it’s direct and manifestly true: Make the most of your chances, do the best you can, stop when you’re finished, love your family, enjoy life.”
Words to live by, especially these days.
Tom Shaker is the host of The Soul Serenade, Monday evenings 7-10pm on 90.5 WICN.