Mr. Bill Withers
Good day to you…..
Here we are, at the regular Wednesday get together. The grey weather continues unabated, but since we in NJ have been spared the worst of this seemingly endless storm – which has caused all kinds of flooding and property damage between Philadelphia and the Carolinas – I can’t really complain. As long as it’s warm – and it is – it’s still summer to me, and I’ll take it.
Today’s selection is the kind of record that I’ve carped about before, i.e. a song that I genuinely love (as are all of the tunes I post here), but one that escapes easy categorization, and thus description. This may or may not be a moot point. As I post an MP3 of each and every song I write about, it is possible for the listener/reader to download/play and listen to the tracks and describe it for themselves. However… That’s not really the sole purpose of this little electronic Mom & Pop operation I have going here. What I strive to do (though strive may be, on some days, too strong a word) is present little slices of excellent music, wrapped in a little bit of context/perspective, a lot of enthusiasm, strained through my own stew of opinions. The end result is – I hope – that the readers are exposed to some excellent music that either they haven’t heard before, or are hearing in a new way, and that they learn something new about that particular piece of music’s place in the grand scheme of things. I try to maintain a balance between playing to the connoisseurs in the crowd, and to those who are by and large unfamiliar with much of the music posted here.
On that note, despite the fact that today’s selection resides on the b-side of a substantial hit record, I hadn’t heard it before a few months ago. I have my fellow posters over at Soulstrut to thank for hepping me to the excellence of Bill Withers first LP, 1971’s ‘Just As I Am’.
While I (and everyone else with access to a radio) knew and loved ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, and had picked up a couple of Withers’ 45s when they came out in the 70’s, I had never owned, or heard a copy of his first LP. While browsing the racks at my local book and music mega-mondo-mart, I saw that ‘Just As I Am’ had been reissued in an excellent new package that included the entire album, and when you flipped the CD over it was also a DVD with a mini-documentary about Withers and the entire album again, in surround-sound, so I grabbed it. I’m here to tell you that if you haven’t gotten a copy of this album, you should do so now. Withers, who was recording demos and laboring installing airplane toilets when he was finally signed to Sussex, is if not unique, a truly unusual talent. His style combined the basic singer/songwriter structure that was the lingua franca in 1971, with pure, deep soul. He was an outstanding songwriter, and his performances, often with an acoustic guitar, carried with them an intimacy that made his songs even more powerful. When I hear ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, the first thing I think of is a feeling, i.e. melancholy, before I even begin to consider the elements of the actual record. That’s deep.
That ability to transmit emotion in his songs carries throughout the entire ‘Just As I Am’ album, from his powerful originals like ‘Grandma’s Hands’, ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier” and the loose and funky ‘Do It Good’, and creative reworkings of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ and the Beatles ‘Let It Be’. The tune that grabbed me the most when I listened to the album for the first time was ‘Harlem’. Opening with Withers’ guitar and then a wave of strings, the momentum of the song builds gradually. The lyrics, painting a picture of life in Harlem, are excellent, and as their intensity builds, so do the vocals, working into a powerful statement. It’s really interesting that they chose to make ‘Harlem’ the flip side of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, because the two recordings form a kind of stylistic yin/yang, balancing the quiet pleading of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ with the forceful ‘Harlem’. The production by Booker T. Jones (he of the MGs) is outstanding, and the record manages to build in its mere three and a half minute span into a kind of mini epic. It’s the kind of record that in combination with a very solid track record as a hitmaker, ought to spur on a reconsideration of Withers as a major artist.
As I said before, ‘Harlem’ was the flipside of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, so a little garage-sale-ing, and 25 cents ought to be enough to secure your very own copy of this gem. If your interest is a little bit deeper, you can always grab ‘Lean On Me – Best of Bill Withers’ which includes not only ‘Harlem’ but all of his big hits. I would suggest grabbing the ‘Just As I Am’ CD, if only to hear the album in its entirety. It’s just that good.