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Bill Withers


With that Sunday morning feeling; relaxed and chilling from the troubles and woes of the past week and of the world we live in, the soothing and soulful BILL WITHERS was a perfect antidote. Several songs from his 70s era have since achieved staple status, but none were more glowing and evergreen than big ticket items, `Ain’t No Sunshine’, `Lean On Me’ and `Lovely Day’; all duly re-recorded by a plethora of other artists in their quest for fame and fortune.
Born William Harrison Withers, Jr., July 4, 1938, Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill was the youngest child in a family whose offspring ran into double figures; thus WITHERS came to the music industry relatively late in life. He joined the navy in his teens and began singing and writing songs during his nine-year tenure, settling in Los Angeles upon his discharge in the mid-60s. While working full-time in an aerospace factory, Bill did the rounds of the major West Coast record companies and publishers with his own demo tape although his efforts proved fruitless but for a one-off single for Lotus Records in summer ’67: `Three Nights And A Morning’ (b/w `What I’ll Do’).
His talent was finally recognised by Sussex Records, who financed the recording of a debut album with producer/arranger/instrumentalist Booker T. Jones at the helm. The result was JUST AS I AM (1971) {*8}, its title indicative of the 30-something singer/songwriter’s lack of gimmick or pretence. WITHERS’ acoustic, chilled-out morning folk-soul possessed a gnarly, lived-in authenticity that saw the likes of `Ain’t No Sunshine’ (originally the flip-side of `Harlem’) cracked the Top 3. A million seller, this classic track featured rhythmic backing from the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, as well as STEPHEN STILLS on guitar and Chris Etheridge on bass, symptomatic of WITHERS’ closer proximity – at least musically – to L.A.’s white troubadours than its handful of genuine soul acts. The album itself nudged into the Top 40, although the follow-up platter, `Grandma’s Hands’ (b/w `Sweet Wanomi’), stalled just outside that particular threshold. At a time when MARVIN GAYE was asking “What’s Going On” and STEVIE WONDER emboldened his case via “Where I’m Coming From”, WITHERS put his mark on covers such as FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’ and The BEATLES’ `Let It Be’.
1972’s sophomore set, STILL BILL {*8}, was just as strong, spawning the timeless, universally themed `Lean On Me’. This gospel-flavoured favourite topped both the pop and R&B charts that summer, and has since been covered by everyone from TERRY CALLIER & BETH ORTON, to CLUB NOUEVEAU and 2-4 FAMILY. The last but one’s 1987 remake resulted in Bill receiving a belated Grammy award, his third, in recognition of his songwriting skills. Second single, `Use Me’, was almost as big – narrowly missing the No.1 slot – if not quite so enduring, whilst unflappable classic, `Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?’ was another to feature his backing band of Bernorce Blackmon (guitar), Melvin Dunlap (bass), James Gadson (drums), Raymond Jackson (keyboards) and Bobbye Hall (percussion).
At the height of his fame in April ’73, and on the back of a pair of exclusive hits, `The Gift Of Giving’ and `Kissing My Love’, the singer/guitarist brought the house down at Carnegie Hall in NYC; an event documented that October on LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL {*8}.
1974 saw the release of his final Sussex-sanctioned effort, +JUSTMENTS {*6}, as well as a performance alongside the likes of JAMES BROWN and B.B. KING at Muhammad Ali’s legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” extravaganza in Zaire. The album itself contained minor hit, `The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’ (soon to be part of DIANA ROSS’s “Baby It’s Me” LP), whilst then wife/actress Denise Nicholas turned in the song, `Can We Pretend’; Bill’s album was also to feature the talents of Puerto Rican guitarist JOSE FELICIANO. Note that Bill divorced Denise in 1974 after a volatile relationship; he then wed Marcia Johnson, in 1976, and they went on to have two children.
Although WITHERS subsequently signed to Columbia Records, session-friendly albums such as MAKING MUSIC (1975) {*5}, NAKED & WARM (1976) {*5}, and his return to Top 40 form, MENAGERIE (1977) {*7}, veered increasingly towards AOR territory. The latter set spawned another of WITHERS’ languid calling cards, `Lovely Day’; a Top 30 hit first time round and a belated UK entry just over a decade later after it was used in a TV commercial.
1978’s underrated ’BOUT LOVE {*5}, meanwhile, was a collection of funky romantic musings co-penned by gospel pianist Paul Smith. Chasing AL GREEN on his mission to praise the Lord above was somewhat ill-conceived, but at least one could respect Bill W’s good intentions from `All Because Of You’ to `Memories Are Made That Way’.
Although WITHERS wasn’t to release another solo set until 1985’s swan song WATCHING YOU WATCHING ME {*4}, the interim had saw the man share his vocal talents with jazz-funk artists such as The CRUSADERS and GROVER WASHINGTON Jr; earning a Grammy for his 1981, near chart-topping duet (`Just The Two Of Us’) with the latter. Save the aforementioned mid-80s album, Bill was notable for his absence from the music scene, although he continued to tour whilst his classic early 70s work was still treasured by many. BLACKstreet’s No.1 platter. `No Diggity’ sampled `Grandma’s Hands’ and won a 1998 Grammy in the process. Among many, many other subsequent awards, BILL WITHERS was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in April 2015.
© MC Strong GRD 2000-2006/GRD/BG // rev-up MCS Nov2019

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