Monday, 9 July 2018

Bill Withers - Just As I Am (1971)


Released in May 1971

Recorded at Sunset Sound, Hollywood, California

Bill Withers' 1971 debut album is a truly wonderful thing.


1. Harlem
2. Ain't No Sunshine
3. Grandma's Hands
4. Sweet Wanomi
5. Everybody's Talkin'
6. Do It Good
7. Hope She'll Be Happier
8. Let It Be
9. I'm Her Daddy
10. In My Heart
11. Moanin' And Groanin'
12. Better Off Dead                                                                

It starts off with the creeping, insistent boom and rhythm of “Harlem” - full of funky bass and organ and some hypnotic percussion licks. Then there is Withers’ voice - strong, soulful and dominating, keeping pace with this storming song as the drums kick in even more, the tempo increases as it builds to a dramatic climax and those beautiful horns arrive. This is a copper-bottomed stonker of a first track of your recorded career. Could it get any better after that? You bet. “Ain’t No Sunshine” - one of soul’s music’s finest ever songs. This album is remastered beautifully here (from the “Complete Bill Withers” box set), just check out that “I know, I know, I know” vocal part and its magnificent bass and percussion instrumentation beneath it. The bluesy funk of the emotive and moving “Grandma’s Hands” is next - superb. Massive drum sound, and a killer booming bass. Heavenly. These songs have had some notable coverers - Michael Jackson and Gil Scott-Heron - a testament to their quality.

“Sweet Wanomi” is a short, cooking piece of organ and rhythm-driven soul. Withers has a great soul voice. Song after song proves it, over and over. The quality on this album, for a debut from 1971, is without compare. Bill Withers really had something here. The cognoscenti knew it, and still do, but widespread critical acceptance always seemed to elude him, which was somewhat perplexing.

Withers takes Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and gives it an almost Stax-y soul kick posterior, so to speak. Very Al Green-esque in places and gives a completely new aspect to this well-known song. A bit like Billy Paul did with Elton John’s “Your Song” a year later. Reinventing a classic soulfully. The ”scat” bit at the end is irresistible. “Do It Good” goes jazzy and funky at the same time. An addictive keyboard line, crystal clear cymbals and Withers’ unique nasally vocals floating all around its mesmeric rhythm, complete with a convincing “ad hoc” rap in the middle too. My goodness, the sound on this remaster is superb - I have to reiterate. Apologies for that.

“Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a (comparatively) lengthy, heartfelt soulful number, with a sparse backing and yearning vocal. “Let It Be” sees Withers give his funky gospel soul treatment to Paul McCartney’s classic, turning it into a handclapping churchy celebration. “I’m Her Daddy” is a lament from Withers to a ex-lover, Lucy, who has not told him he has a six year-old daughter. “In My Heart” is a sparse, acoustic guitar only ballad that goes on just a little too long, if I have to give a small criticism of this otherwise magnificent album.

“Moanin’ And Groanin’” sees the potent funk back, big time, which is fine by me. This is a big powerhouse of a groove. “Better Off Dead” is a shuffling, sad tale of alcohol abuse and addiction. Yet more fantastic instrumentation and sound reproduction. This album cooks with the control up to 9 - red hot, bubbling and flavoursome.


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