Bill Withers is not underrated by people who know about him and who recognizes his music, but he is unknown and criminally overlooked by the general public. He is in fact one of the greatest singer/songwriters in music history. He is soulful, but his music is not constrained to the soul genre. He writes good songs and he is a marvelous performer.
Bill Withers became a part of the L.A. music scene in the late 60s after a period in the Navy. While he was assembling airplane toilets for Boeing he was signed to the Sussex music label (in 1970) and had instant success with his first album, Just As I Am, and the acoustic ballad, Ain’t No Sunshine. Bill Withers had more in common with the singer/songwriters than with the rising disco/soul, even though there’s a strong groove in his songs, sometimes even a funky rhythm. His second release, 1972’s Still Bill, became a career high point, it contained songs like Use Me and Lean On Me, big hits both of them. The album cemented his position in music history.
In 1972 he also recorded the fantastic live album, Live at Carnegie Hall (released 1973). Nowhere is his narrative prowess and powerful vocal style more clear. This is number 19 on my list of the best live albums of all time.
The opener is a slow version of Use Me that Bill Withers turns into a seductive almost nine minute jam.
Use Me (Soul Train, 197?), not nearly as good as the Carnegie Hall version, but very good anyway:
The album also has the definitive version of Ain’t no Sunshine, a faster more jazzy interpretation than usual.
There are many great songs on the album, but the real masterpiece is Grandma’s Hands and especially Bill Wither’s long intro, he is reminiscing about his grandmother playing tambourine in the church. We hear him describe the dancing and preaching at the church, his grandmother banging on the tambourine in joy, it’s an incredible story. He then launches into a heartfelt version of the song which, again, bests the original by miles. After hearing this version and his strong introduction, you will experience the song in new and deeper way.
Grandma’s Hands (audio with slide show):
“Grandma them had one a them churches where they sung “If you wanna help me Jesus, it’s alright. If you wanna help me Jesus, it’s alright”. And at the funeral they used to have to tie the caskets down! Yeah. Yeah.” – Bill Withers from the introduction
Allmusic (Steven McDonald):
A wonderful live album that capitalizes on Withers’ trademark melancholy soul sound while expanding the music to fit the room granted by a live show. Lovely versions of “Grandma’s Hands” and “Lean on Me” are balanced by heartfelt downbeat numbers like “Better Off Dead” and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” the latter being an anti-war song with a chilling message. The set finishes off with the lengthy “Harlem/Cold Baloney,” with lots of audience-pleased call-and-response going on. One of the best live releases from the ’70s.
Buster Jones interviews Bill Withers at Soul Unlimited 1973. Video footage of Buster, Bill and Vicki at Sussex Records comes on. Bill talks about his previous job as someone who used to built bathrooms for airplanes. Buster tells Bill that he really loves the song “Let Me Into You Life” and asks him what the inspiration was behind that song. He says that most women over 25 years old don’t trust anybody and they have good reason to. And when there is a man of a certain age who is ready to commit to this special lady, but because everyone else has lied to this lady he tells her to let me into your life. Buster congratulates Bill on his recent nuptials to actres, Denise Nicholas. Vicki poses a question to Billy about whether it is hard for two performers to be in a marriage. Billy cannot answer the question as has no other reference to compare it to. he also says that although it is hard for them to see each other, it doesn’t give you a chance to get tired of each other. Billy talks about his back-up band being from a rhythm section of a band and how it’s important to be friends and having to like each other to be tight in what they do:
The record end with Harlem/Cold Baloney, it gives a vivid description of a typical Saturday in Harlem, some people going out to parties, others going to church. The song ends with an engaging sing-along, making the show into a “church meeting”. Bill Withers have the audience in his grip, like only the best preachers can do (for 14 minutes!).
What an album!
Harlem/Cold Baloney (audio):
Drums – James Gadson
Executive Producer [Reissue] – Tony Martell
Guitar – Bernorce Blackman
Guitar [Acoustic], Producer [Original] – Bill Withers
Guitar [Bass] – Melvin Dunlap
Mastered By – Tom Ruff
Percussion – Bobbye Hall
Piano – Ray Jackson
Bill Withers – 1973 BBC Concert Complete
almost as good as the Carnegie Hall show but missing the wonderful audience reactions:
00:00:00 Ain`t No Sunshine
00:03:18 Lonely Town, Lonely Street
00:09:14 Grandma`s Hands
00:11:40 Use Me
00:16:01 Let Me In Your Life
00:20:15 Lean On Me
Also check out the documentary Still Bill available in all good DVD shops and on Netflix (and on YouTube now)
Sources: Still Bill (documentary), Interviews (youtube), Allmusic, Wikipedia
Posts in this series:
20. Live at the Star Club, Hamburg by Jerry Lee Lewis
21. MTV Unplugged Live in New York by Nirvana
22. Kick Out The Jams by MC5
23. One night stand! Live at the Harlem Square Clum 1963 by Sam Cooke
24. Live At The Apollo by James Brown
25. The Band of Gypsys – Jimi Hendrix
26. The Köln Concert by Keith Jarret
27. On Stage by Elvis Presley
28. One for the road by The Kinks
29. Waiting for Columbus by Little Feat
30. Wings over America by Wings