Holiday Gift Guide 2012
Discs worth slipping in a gift box
From pioneer punks to a giant of soul
Published: November 21, 2012
The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums
All hail Sony/Legacy for finally bringing back into print, and collecting in one handy little box, all nine albums created by singer-songwriter Bill Withers on the Sussex and Columbia labels. His was a career that fascinates.
By the time Withers recorded his debut, 1971's Booker T.-helmed Just as I Am, he was a well-lived 32-year-old man who had served in the Navy and found work in factories. The album was, without question, one of the greatest of the decade, and one of the greatest, most personal soul LPs ever recorded. Mixing '70s-style singer-songwriter confessionals with '60s Southern soul, it crossed genres and racial boundaries, killing it on both the R&B and pop charts, and defining a moment in early '70s music. The huge "Ain't No Sunshine" drew listeners in only to get hooked on Withers' workaday truths, which populated the other tunes — culminating on "Better Off Dead," where an alcoholic blows his head off after drinking away his woman and life. Yes, his songs are fraught with despair and sadness, sometimes with zero redemptive qualities; they're very vérité in a sense, like life. It's one of those records that sounds and feels like it had to be made, that other options were none for a West Virginian son from a tiny coal-mining town who existed in a world of welfare lines, railroad yards and crooked congregations.
In 1972, Withers released Still Bill, which rivals his debut in every way. In "Lean on Me," you know he means it; he's saying that there are selfless people in life who won't step over you if you're down, where folks actually give a shit about each other. He's from that place, which is, as he themes through the album, all working-class and a mighty long way from the record business of Los Angeles. Conversely, "Use Me" is as simple and sincere a statement of yearning, of male sexual desire, as any you'll ever hear.
"Grandma's Hands" on his 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall stuns. It begins on a self-deprecating spoken word rap intro about his family and friends in Appalachia: "At the funeral they used to have to tie the caskets down! ... I loved that old lady. ..." Then, with his voice alone, backed by sparse instrumentation, he begins, and you can't escape the sense of his own grandmother as he sings, "Grandma's hands soothed an unwed mother ..." It's a performance that's power without volume, profundity without pretense. Withers' voice, and the album, rises and falls on real-time musical tension, and it mirrors the times and place. Withers and band were absolutely on that night.
His next, 1974's +'Justments, finds the sonics smoothed out a bit, but not the soul and the song, which contain thinly veiled criticisms of his label Sussex Records, which was shorting Withers on royalties. It's a worthy encore to his first three albums, and it happens to contain his most beautiful song in "Liza," just electric piano and voice.
Withers switched to Columbia Records and in 1975 released the unironically titled Making Friends, the most underrated disc in the singer's canon. With its funk undertones — particularly the hip-swiveling "Sometimes a Song" — the entire LP is a love letter to mid-'70s groove, melody and feel. It's thick with musical stimuli, including surprisingly pretty, horn-rich arrangements and understated storytelling (especially "The Best You Can") where Withers gets away with such lines as "I wish you freedom to do all the things you love" without maudlin or preachy afterglows, and you believe him. It's the kind of record Sly Stone wished he had in him at that point. (Note that Detroit's Paul Riser arranged the strings and horns, and godhead Funk Brother James Jamerson played bass on "Family Table.")
The next year's Naked and Warm continues Withers' soul funk-up with a healthy cast of players, with occasional winks to jazz and that unfortunate kind of mellowness that was endemic to Southern California twilights in the '70s — palm trees, light jazz and margaritas — which didn't exactly suit Withers.
When Withers made his next two, '77's Menagerie and '79's 'Bout Love, he was well-established as the laconic crooner of the working class, the king of juxtaposing deceptively simple lines of truth, beauty and self-realization around tunes that rose straight out of soul, funk and folk. But that stuff stopped selling. Hence, these albums saw Withers softened by a major label to fit radio at a confusing time when R&B was suddenly polished and soulless as a coffin. The albums got a little strung-out on balladry, disco and too-smooth synths and orchestrations. Menagerie went gold but Withers was no fan of it. 'Bout Love didn't sell at all — it peaked at No. 134 on Billboard's album chart. Still, even the overproduced sheen couldn't smother Withers' songwriting.
The singer-songwriter was so fed up by music biz trash and vaudeville that he eventually bailed for good in the late '80s, preferring instead to raise his family on a quiet farm in the South. But he didn't quit before a fruitful collaboration with Grover Washington Jr., and his final album, 1985's smooth Watching You Watching Me, which was, surprisingly, good, at a time when Olivia Newton John and Whitney Houston were considered soul.
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