There was almost no precedent for Bill Withers in the 1970s
Bill Withers had a past. As a recording artist, he may have come from nowhere, when his first album emerged in 1971, but his life had an interesting prologue.
Born on July 4, 1938, Withers had his first hit record at a time when being thirty-three years old was considered fairly elderly by pop music standards. The Slab Fork, West Virginia native had been a Navy seaman, a milkman, had worked at an aircraft-parts factory, and had even released one random single on the Lotus label in 1967 (“Three Nights & A Morning,” later re-recorded on his debut album as “Harlem”). When his demo tape landed on the desk of Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant, he was still a factory worker who sang and strummed guitar in his spare time. No one could have predicted that, by the end of the seventies, he would have amassed a steady stream of hit singles, many of which became standards: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day.”
There was almost no precedent for Bill Withers in the early seventies. When he first emerged, the typical African-American male singer strode on stage in a fancy suit, put on a show influenced by Vegas aesthetics, and sang songs about love affairs and the new dance craze. Withers, by comparison, dressed casually and sat on a stool playing an acoustic guitar, like a folk singer. While singer-songwriters were in vogue at the time (with James Taylor being the poster child), this wasn’t an area you saw many black performers in. There had been Richie Havens, but he was geared more towards the folk-rock set. There was also Terry Callier, who had been gigging around Chicago, playing an acoustic mix of folk, soul, and jazz. Havens had some measure of fame; Callier had a sustaining cult following. Withers was a bonafide superstar, even if he were a little unassuming. The cover of his debut album, Just As I Am, showed him on his break at the factory, with the lunchbox still in his hand. If somebody like Al Green had worked at a gas station, there was no way in hell he would pose on an album sleeve standing next to a fuel pump. “What you see is what you get” was a popular catchphrase in ‘71. Withers embodied it.
AUDIO: Bill Withers Just As I Am (full album)
He came along at the right time, too. Black music was going through something of a “progressive” period during this era, like the white rock world a few short years before. Withers, along with Sly Stone, Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, Swamp Dogg, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many others, were redefining soul music and taking it past the boundaries. This went on for a good four or five years before disco came along. All told, Withers released nine albums between 1971-85 (not counting compilations). There’s a coterie of diehard fans who stick with the first four, which were released on Sussex. After he switched to Columbia, his albums seemed slicker, designed for fans of Al Jarreau and post-crossover George Benson. Withers has said he wasn’t fond of the Columbia records; there was always some producer meddling in his affairs, trying to complicate his simple music with some false idea of “black music.”
Withers has spoken of this era several times in interviews, choosing to refer to the term A&R as “Antagonistic & Redundant.” Summing up his Columbia years, he once told an interviewer: “You gonna tell me the history of the blues? I am the goddamn blues. Look at me. Shit. I’m from West Virginia, I’m the first man in my family not to work in the coal mines, my mother scrubbed floors on her knees for a living, and you’re going to tell me about the goddam blues because you read some book written by John Hammond? Kiss my ass.”
To be fair, the remark was aimed at the A&R director he worked with, rather than the interviewer, but the message was clear. Just like most focused musicians, he didn’t want an outside party choosing his direction. Having been smart enough to handle his business, he retired from the industry. He was still collecting royalties from the various covers of his songs through the years, as well as continued radio airplay. Between that and a few smart investments, he left the recording industry on top, like most artists hope to.
Personally, I’ve always had a strong preference for Withers’ recordings on the Sussex label (now rereleased on Columbia); natural, unforced, and unconcerned with trends. Withers was moving at his own pace, and it touched a nerve with the world. This is where most of his career-defining songs originated, but Withers was no mere “singles artist.” The deep cuts are as worthwhile as the golden oldies. +Justments, his final Sussex LP, wasn’t a breakup album, per se, but like Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, several songs provided a hard, critical look at a relationship gone down the toilet. For someone who claimed to be a shy kid with a stuttering problem growing up, Withers was quite articulate, both on the paper and in person.
Just about every interview I’ve ever read with the man had some choice nugget worth repeating, and his live album, Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall, had him interacting with over two thousand people as if he were talking to five friends in his living room. His intro to “Grandma’s Hands” walks the line between tender memories and comedy gold, and towards the end of “Harlem/Cold Baloney,” he calls out the heads of his record label by name, wondering if they’re shaking ass like the rest of the audience. While most people consider live albums to be optional and non-essential, this truly ranks with Withers’ finest. The pride of Slab Fork made good.
Bill’s discography was relatively small, and he did his best work in a short span of time. Even though he received quite a few offers to record and perform over the last twenty years, Bill was content to stay retired. I would have selfishly loved to see Withers return to the ring for some late-career masterpieces ala Johnny Cash’s final LPs. Interestingly, as singular and popular as Bill Withers was, there have been very few “acoustic soul” performers over the last few decades. Occasionally there will be a Charles Bevel, Lou Bond, India Arie, or (currently) Michael Kiwanuka walking in those same tracks. All of these performers do (or did, in Bond’s case) a fine job. While the legacy should be extended, the shoes of the one and only Bill Withers will be hard to fill.
VIDEO: Still Bill Documentary