An hour with Bill Withers. It’s not a lot but it is enough to recognise the importance of this songwriter. His career began aged 32 and lasted just 15 years and 8 albums, and included a monumental live performance at Carnegie Hall. Between 1970 and 1985 the West Virginia native released an impressive series of records. Some became hits – “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean on Me”, and “Just the Two of Us”, a single released under the name Grover Washington but whose provenance can reasonably be ascribed to Bill. Others became instant soul classics – “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”, “Can We Pretend”, “Grandma’s Hands”... And many can be found in any vinyl-lovers' collection – “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and “Kissing My Love’” whose opening drum pattern has become one of the most famous hip hop breakbeats in the world.
To spend one hour with this musician is to retrace the steps left by one of the greatest soul folk singers ever. This is a genre that combines great musical interpretation in two registers, based on writing that is capable of telling real stories using great words. And it was in this skill in particular that Bill Withers excelled, despite having suffered from a stutter as a young man (an echo of which we can hear in the famous ‘I know, I know, I know...’ of “Ain’t No Sunshine” – a moment that in fact enthroned him as one of the greats). His songs stick to a theme that speaks to the whole world: love, both euphoric and painful. “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” talks about the impact the passage of time can have on feelings. “Just the Two of Us” tells of the dizzy heights of an inseparable couple. And when it comes to “Lovely Day” well, the title says it all.
‘Singing is a difficult art, seeing as you have barely four minutes in which to express all of your deep, funny, and interesting feelings.’ The ex-manual labourer (he’d worked on aviation production lines) could fine-tune any melody as well as adding simple and effective rhymes to his songs. He was a civil rights activist and this could’ve led to more straightforward songwriting. However, Withers knew how to play with words, many of his lyrics having double meanings, allowing each person the interpretation they choose.
Above all he counted on Clarence Avant, his producer and founder of the seminal Sussex Records, who helped to shape Withers’ songs. For his first album, named simply Just As I Am, organist Booker T. Jones, MG’s groove master, did the arrangements with Stephen Stills on guitar providing solid and supple rhythms. It’s no surprise that so many artists looking for a sample go to Withers’ catalogue. Have another listen to “No Diggity” by Blackstreet to remind you of the impact of Bill Withers on African-American pop music, and just look at the number of times his songs have been covered. His music has also been used countless times in ads (Ikea, Amazon,…) All of this contributed to the fact that, in 1980, he decided to give it all up, tired of the choices made by a music industry whom he felt was out of touch with his deep-rooted nature as a craftsman.