Music Talk: Bill Withers

Music Talk: Bill Withers

Music Talk is Alachua County Library District's new monthly music discussion program. During the first week of each month, we'll post a blog about an artist, genre, or music-related topic. On the fourth Tuesday of each month at 1p.m., we'll meet on Zoom to discuss! ACLD has a fantastic and wide-ranging collection of music cds, music documentaries and concerts, and music-related books, so the sky is the limit to what we can cover! This month we're diving into the music and career of the late, great Bill Withers!

Come back on Tuesday, April 27th at 1 p.m. for our Music Talk Listening Club: Bill Withers on Zoom.

 

Background

Bill WithersBill Withers got a late start in the music industry, finding his first success at the ripe old age of 32. He had spent 9 years in the Navy, followed by a few years installing toilets in airplanes for Boeing, before (as the story goes) overhearing a nightclub manager complain that he was paying Lou Rawls $2000 a week just to show up late. Withers decided he was in the wrong business. So, he bought a guitar and taught himself to play and how to write songs. He recorded a demo tape which caught the ear of Clarence Avant, who signed him to his record label, Sussex. Withers’s first record, Just as I Am, yielded the Top Ten hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” His second, Still Bill, was even more successful, with the classics “Use Me” and “Lean on Me” elevating him to R&B royalty and proving that he was one of America’s finest songwriters. Withers continued recording throughout the seventies and early eighties, finding commercial and critical success with hits such as “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Frustrated by his dealings with clueless record executives, he retired from the music industry in 1985. He spent his remaining years living a quiet and comfortable life with his family, delighted whenever his previous career brought him attention, but resolute in his decision to stay retired. Bill Withers died on March 30, 2020, at the age of 81.

Read more about Bill Withers with complimentary access to the New York Times. Just sign in with your libary card and create an account. Also, check out the Bill Withers results in Gale in Context: Biography for some great interviews with Withers on NPR and profiles from magazines such as The New Yorker.

 

CDs and DVDs

Still BillStill Bill Bill Withers’s second album is a stone-cold classic of seventies soul. His debut album, Just As I Am, was an excellent record and “Ain’t No Sunshine” made him as a star. Once established, though, he could exert more control and Still Bill is the result. Gone are the studio musicians and covers of pop songs. Withers’s new backing band generates deep grooves on a tight set of original songs, including “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” “Who is He and What is He to You,” and the undeniable “Use Me.” And, of course, Still Bill has the immortal “Lean on Me.” If there is a more convincing or moving song about being good to each other, I haven’t heard it. The album is short, especially by today’s standards, and breezes by in 36 minutes. That breeziness is also baked into Withers's style – he doesn’t shout or plead. His songwriting is economical, but poignant, and his vocal style is steady and clear. Bill Withers won’t demand your attention, but if you give it to him, you'll be richly rewarded.

Ain't no sunshine: The best of Bill WithersAin’t no sunshine: The best of Bill Withers This is the Bill Withers anthology you need to let in your life. Disc one is devoted to his first two albums, which is as it should be. Still Bill is included in its entirety and most of Just as I Am is here (though “I’m Her Daddy” is missing and missed.) The first half of the disc two hits the highlights from his later albums, including “Lovely Day” and “The Same Love that Made Me Laugh,” while the second half documents much of his 1973 concert at Carnegie Hall. If there is any complaint about Wither’s first two albums, it’s that the songs could go a little longer, but here they have some room to breathe. This compilation's only glaring omission is Wither’s collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr., “Just the Two of Us,” but that’s understandable because it was recorded for a different record label. Highly recommended.

Playlist: The very best of Bill WithersPlaylist: The very best of Bill Withers This compilation isn't really a "best of"; "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" are present, but only as live versions. It doesn't contain any of his other major hits and devotes more time to his uneven later albums than his cherished early work. No, this is a "deep cuts" compilation, which some listeners may prefer. What this collection does well is give Withers's underrated fourth album, +Justments, its due and cherry-picks some great songs from forgotten late period albums. Bizarrely, it doesn't include anything from Menagerie, which is generally regarded as a high point of his later output, but every song included earns its place.

Still Bill DVDStill Bill This low-key and likable documentary catches up with Bill Withers at 71, a contented family man who had long ago left the music industry behind. The filmmakers tell the story of his career with interviews and concert footage, hitting the major points – his relatively late entry into the music business, how he found fame on the strength of his songwriting and warm baritone voice, and his disillusionment with music executives which led him to walk away from it all (it surely helped that, as the sole songwriter of songs such as “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he wasn’t about to go hungry.) We see Withers return to his birthplace of Slab Fork, WV and reminisce with old friends. We see him speak to a roomful of children who suffer from stutters (he stuttered until his late twenties.) We see him making music in his home studio with Raul Midón, seemingly for no other purpose than that Midon’s music caught his fancy. Throughout it all, he is as down-to-earth and honest as you’d expect him to be. When his daughter plays him some of her music that doesn’t cut it for him, he won’t give false praise. But when he hears beauty and truth in her work, there's not a dry eye in the house.

Soul PowerSoul Power This concert documentary was compiled from archival footage of Zaire 74, a music festival that brought together African, African-American, and Afro-Cuban musicians and dancers. Promoted by Don King, it was meant to coincide with the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Alas, George Foreman sustained an injury requiring stitches and the fight was postponed for six weeks. Nevertheless, the festival went on as planned. The music is energetic and infectious, with high power performances from Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, and James Brown (among others.) And then there’s Bill Withers, plaintively singing a heartbreak song, “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” with only his simple fingerpicked guitar as accompaniment. It’s kind of perfect. He’s not going to pretend to be somebody he’s not. This comes out in his few other scenes as well, such as when he sits down next to Muhammad Ali to eat his lunch, unfazed and (inexplicably) shirtless.

 

More Music Options

Did you know that with your library card, you can download five free songs every week? And they're yours to keep? Freegal gives you access to millions of songs, including the entire Bill Withers catalog. Get it while the getting's good!

Prefer to stream your music? We recommend This is Bill Withers on Spotify and Bill Withers Essentials and Bill Withers: Next Steps on Apple Music. Also, check out our hand-picked Youtube playlist below, which includes select live performance and the short documentary Bill Withers: As I Am.

Bill Withers