I was working behind closed doors at the record shop I manage, Captured Tracks in Greenpoint (Brooklyn), when I heard that Bill Withers had passed. It was two weeks into the lockdown in New York and he’d be one of the many deaths of musicians I admired that I would find out about in the year to come. I had also coincidentally been going through a handful of Bill Withers singles at the shop, a lot of which came from his second album, Still Bill. Use Me, Who Is He (And What Is He To You), Kissing My Love. I took to listening to a lot of his music in the weeks to follow.
Bill Withers was born in a small coal mining town in West Virginia to working class parents. His dad, a miner, died when Bill was thirteen. His mom was a maid. He was a stutterer and a bit of an outsider. At the ripe age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Navy and wound up serving for nine years. It was during his service that he became interested in singing and songwriting. In 1965, he left the Navy and relocated to Los Angeles, where he wanted to start a music career. During his early California days, he penned an early version of Harlem, then called, “Three Nights and One Morning,” arranged by Mort Garson, the early electronic music pioneer and composer most known for his album Plantasia.
During his early years in LA, Withers had been working various day jobs, staying close to his working-class upbringing and self-funding studio time to record demos. One of such tapes made it to Sussex Records’ founder Clarence Avant, who favored Withers and signed him up for four three-hour recording sessions shortly after. Just As I Am, his debut album, was recorded in three with calendar breaks due to funding issues and was released in 1971. It was the first and only album to feature members of the former Stax Records house band, Booker T. and the MG’s, renowned ensemble that provided rhythm section for countless recordings of the era.
The cover sees Withers pictured at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California, holding his lunch box, an expression of skepticism towards this “potential” career in the fickle music industry. Despite the shortened recording sessions, this first effort was nothing short of a triumph, featuring songs like Ain’t No Sunshine, Harlem, or Grandma’s Hands. He earned Grammy noms for Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Performance, and winning Best R&B Song for Ain’t No Sunshine in 1972.
Now a successful recording artist, Withers pulled bassist Melvin Dunlap, drummer James Gadson, arranger/pianist/trombonist Ray Jackson and guitarist Benorce Blackmon away from LA-funk giants The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and into his touring band. They all joined him in the studio the year after to record Still Bill and stayed on the Withers payroll for a while.
Opening the center fold-out sleeve of Still Bill, released in May 1972 on Sussex, I notice the lyrics. They sit on my left and right hands as I hold it like an open window. Underneath each song title lies a sentence in parenthesis and they read, from opener to closer, as a narrative. A message from Bill, now a touring artist, weighing in on human nature, character flaws, and various forms of pleasure. I really love these messages, simply told and laid out for us to interpret. It both bums me out and excites me that details like this get easily missed these days, especially in the streaming era. Altogether, they read:
“One of the most interesting things about the music making business is that one gets to travel from city to city. Large cities are very interesting but:
There are people trying to get into relationships.
There are people who are not sure if they should stay in or get out.
Then we have the stout-hearted optimist who gets such a feeling of sensuality from his situation that he could care less about protocol.
Then there is love not related to romance but a love that says simply “I am human so are you. We need each other to survive and grow.”
There is young, reckless, energetic love.
There is mature, soft, secure love.
Lonely people are often confused by things around them and they withdraw and go to “shrinks”
There are people trying to get out of relationships.
So in the last analysis I guess we have to find each of our own loves, our own causes, set up our own values and do the best we can. Information will probably turn out to be our best friend so we just have to take it all in and check it all out and make our decisions and hope for the best.”
Still Bill is considered by many a highlight of Withers’ recording career. He wrote, produced, and sang in all 12 songs, including the stone cold classic (and #1 Billboard hit singles) Lean On Me and Use Me. However popular these singles became, it is also worth noting that these songs had meaning. They were also cool, rhythmic, bluesy, funky, laid back, mature, and full of nuance. The former members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band provided a phenomenal foundation for these collected stories.
It’s hard for me to comprehend, when I think about him and his music, how someone with little to no music background whatsoever could wind up writing some of the most iconic songs of the last 50 years—but then I read this quote of his and it all makes sense:
“When you have a talent you know it when you’re five years old– it’s just getting around to it.”
Withers was considered a late bloomer by music industry standards. Still Bill came out when he was 34. Was it experience then? The years spent collecting life stories out of the spotlight, just like you and me, instead of being a product in/from the music industry? Did the maturity behind the songs come from being, for lack of a better word, normal? They say people freeze at the age they become famous and when I hear his songs, I pick up on wisdom, grit, and soul. Discipline, work—or dare I say, labor. I hear stories of various kinds of love, of tactile real life experiences, no bubblegum pop or songs that seem fabricated, like it had become during the boom of 60s soul. His songs are part of the American consciousness because so many people could make them their own.
When I learned of his death, it felt like someone we all knew had left us. It’s a funny thing, fandom. We know the songs. We know the persona. We dream big and sometimes give up too early. Then I think of the patient trajectory of an openly flawed songwriter who only released his first album at 33, and who by 1985, decided he was done. He said what he had to say, did what he had to do, and largely retreated from the spotlight. Bill’s music may have changed us but, in the end, Bill was Still Bill.