Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Bill Withers



BILL WITHERS (1971)


Harlem/Ain't No Sunshine/Grandma's Hands/Sweet Wanomi/Everybody's Talkin'/Do It Good/Hope She'll Be Happier/Let It Be/I'm Her Daddy/In My Heart/Moanin' And Groanin'/Better Off Dead          

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



STILL BILL (1972)


Lonely Town, Lonely Street/Let Me In Your Life/Who Is He (And What Is He To You?)/Use Me/Lean On Me/Kissing My Love/I Don't Know/Another Day To Run/I Don't Want You On My Mind/Take It All In And Check It All Out   

This was Bill Withers' second album, and it was another beguiling mix of deep soul, acoustic folk, electric funk and observant, some times cutting lyrics. It is, like its predecessor, a unique album in the development of soul music. Withers really wasn't like anyone else at the time and his work justifies several listens.
       
The album begins with two somewhat laid-back cuts - first the insistent but generally gentle groove of Lonely Town, Lonely Street. Don't let the melody mislead you, though, this is quite an ascerbic song, lyrically; secondly, the tender, acoustic tones of Let Me In Your Life. There are vague hints of Van Morrison on this song, for me, in its quiet, meaningful soul vibe and string orchestration. It is a lovely song, but an odd choice for second track in. Cuts like this often come half way through.

Up next is a trio of absolute Withers classics - first up is the lyrically paranoid funk of the mysterious Who Is He (And What Is He To You), which is just such a wonderful, evocative song. I have always wondered about the derivation of the word "dadgummit", however! Then we get the peerless, intoxicating, organ-driven funk of Use Me followed by the uplifting, gospel soul of Lean On Me. The former has been covered by Mick Jagger and Grace Jones, the latter taken to number one in the UK in 1976 by Mud. Both of them are superb songs. I remember first hearing Lean On Me in 1972 as a fourteen year-old and being blown away by it. Every time I hear it now it takes by right back. It was also memorably and movingly performed in the movie of the same name from 1989.

 

Kissing My Love begins with some irresistible drum and guitar funk and proceeds into an upbeat groove with a great soul vocal from Withers. It almost has a jazzy feel at times too. I Don't Know slows down the pace with a gloriously atmospheric slow burner that features some excellent George Benson-style jazz guitar. Another Day To Run returns to funk with another supremely infectious number. The percussion and bass interplay on this is sublime. It is often forgotten how funky Withers could be. Here is the audible, cookin' proof. It is also lyrically tough, in that Withers is singing to a friend caught up in drug abuse.

The funk continues on the wah-wah and fatback drums of the bluesy I Don't Want You On My MindTake It All In And Check It Out is also seductively addictive. More sublime wah-wah licks abound. A quality end to a quality album.

At the same time there was Marvin Gaye, there was Al Green, there was Curtis Mayfield, there was The Temptations, there was The Undisputed Truth, there was Stevie Wonder. There was also Bill Withers, something that should never be overlooked when assessing great early seventies soul.



LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1973)


Use Me/Friend Of Mine/Ain't No Sunshine/Grandma's Hands/World Keeps Going Around/Let Me In Your Life/Better Off Dead/For My Friend/I Can't Write Left-Handed/Lean On Me/Lonely Town, Lonely Street/Hope She'll Be Happier/Let Us Love/Harlem/Cold Baloney  

This is a truly wonderful, atmospheric live performance from the charismatic soul/funk/folk artist Bill Withers. It has a real "live" feeling to it, you can hear the audience clapping along and Withers interacting with them and you really feel you are there.

At the time of the concert, Withers had only released two albums. Some of the tracks are from those albums, such as the funky Use Me, the soulful Ain't No Sunshine, the moving Grandma's Hands and the uplifting, anthemic Lean On Me, but others, like World Keeps Going AroundFor My Friend and the anti-Vietnam War I Can't Write Left-Handed are previously unreleased and also don't appear on subsequent albums. Also, the Stevie Wonder-esque Let Us Love only appears on this album. It was released as a stand-alone single. So, it is not just an album of previously-known tracks, there is some otherwise unavailable material on here. 

Withers is often remembered as an essentially laid-back, acoustically-driven artist but it must not be forgotten that he also used an absolutely top-notch backing band who do their stuff throughout this performance. The album is a pleasure from beginning to end and also quite nostalgic in the manner in which Withers speaks to his audience - very much of its time, using terms like "dig" and "cats". We can dig it, man.

  

+'JUSTMENTS (1974)


You/The Same Love That Made Me Laugh/Stories/Green Grass/Ruby Lee/Heartbreak Road/Can We Pretend/Liza/Make A Smile For Me/Railroad Man 

After two stunning albums of soul with some acoustic, some rock, some funk edges, and a stunning live album, this was the immensely talented Bill Withers' fourth offering. His star was unfortunately fading just a little, and this album disappeared pretty quickly and remained out of print for decades, until recently. That was a shame, because there is some good material on the album, both musically and in its aware messages. The sound quality on the latest remaster to be found in the Complete Albums box set is superb, too.
                               
You is a rhythmic and funky opener with a deep back beat and Withers' soulful voice at its best, in its Use Me style. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh is classic, Stax-ish, Al Green-influenced soul but without the horns, featuring an intoxicating bass, organ and drum backing. Withers' vocal is a bit Stevie Wonder in sound and delivery at times. Stories is an emotive, sparsely-backed ballad, while Green Grass is typical semi-funky Withers soul.

Ruby Lee has echoes of the infectious groove of Who Is He And What Is He To You. Check out that thoroughly irresistible bass line. Heartbreak Road is another chunky, solid number with Withers' band once more sounding great. Lovely sweeping strings on it too. Can We Pretend is a Stevie Wonder-influenced, laid-back soul crooner with additional Spanish guitar from the legendary José Feliciano. Again, a sumptuous bass line underpins it.

 

Liza has a spoken intro over an electric piano, a bit like on Gladys Knight's Help Me Make It Through The Night. It is a sensitive song written by Withers for his niece. Make A Smile For Me continues in the same pleasing vein, with the wonderful bass augmenting the song. The rhythmic funk is back for the final number in Railroad Man. Withers' spoken intro is most atmospheric, while wah-wah guitar and congas cook up an addictive brew.

I love this album, it is up there with the classic soul of the early/mid seventies of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth. Seventies soul was not only Aretha and Stevie. A most underrated, "forgotten gem" of an album.



© Lynn Goldsmith


MAKING MUSIC (1975)


I Wish You Well/The Best You Can/Make Love To Your Mind/I Love You Dawn/She's Lonely/Sometimes A Song/Paint Your Pretty Picture/Family Table/Don't You Want To Stay?/Hello Like Before

Bill Withers always remained somewhat under the soul radar in the seventies, despite the respect he was held in. He carried on putting out albums every year or so, however. He never succumbed to any urge or advice to "go disco", though, like Curtis Mayfield or Barry White, for example. The music on this album is more brassy and punchy than the often acoustic tones found on previous albums, though. The overall sound has a bit more "oomph" to it, and, actually a bit more slickness and polish about the production. It is one of Withers' most conventionally soulful albums. As opposed to going disco, he has upped the soul vibe a little. Backing vocals are utilised more than on previous offerings.
                                       
I Wish You Well begins with some brass backing and wah-wah guitar before Withers' recognisable, slightly nasal voice kicks in. The Best You Can is an appealing, soulful but slightly funky number, with also a bit of a Philadelphia-style string backing. The track ends abruptly and we are into the laid-back funky, wah-wah groove of Make Love To Your Mind, which is also a very soulful track, with Withers' voice on seductive form. There are elements of gospel here, as often on Withers' work and some Stax-y horns too. It ends in superbly upbeat, funky fashion. Some of the strings remind me a lot of The Temptations in the early seventies.

I Love You Dawn begins with some typically seventies TV show theme tune type backing before it settles into a tender love song to I am not sure who (his wife was not called Dawn). The slow ambience continues on the sleepy but solid (in parts) She's Lonely. Withers could always pen a moving, emotive song, and this is one of those. Sometimes A Song is a slow burning, chunky, brassy funky groover. Withers could serve up copper-bottomed slow funk at times. This is in the Use Me style. It is a really uplifting, powerful number.

Paint Your Pretty Picture is a sparse, emotional ballad delivered beautifully by Withers. It is quiet and reflective yet almost anthemically inspirational at the same time. Family Table is a mid-pace piece of horn-driven catchy and poppy funk. Don't You Want To Say? has a wonderfully deep bass line underpinning it, some sumptuous strings and a soulful vocal. Hello Like Before is a delicious number, with a lovely, soothing bass, subtle brass and Withers' vocal making things sound all very reassuring. It also has a nice saxophone solo.

This was another in a series of high quality, but commercially not very successful soul albums from Bill Withers. Time has earned them critical acclaim, however. Sensitive but sometimes funky seventies soul does not really get too much better than this.



                      BILL WITHERS

                        1938 - 2020

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