Bill Withers was 33 when his first single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” reached the pop charts in June 1971. His dues-paying wasn’t a conventional musical apprenticeship.
Withers, who died this week of heart complications, aged 81, was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a tiny mining town, and raised in nearby Beckley, a small city. After high school he joined the Navy, started tinkering with songs, and, by the late ’60s, was self-funding demos while working in L.A. aircraft-assembly plants. He wasn’t a performing musician or an entirely self-confident amateur, and though he found a champion in multi-instrumentalist Ray Jackson, who played trombone and wrote arrangements for Charles Wright’s great Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, his big break was starting to look as likely as a traffic jam in Slab Fork.
“I had started to second-guess my decision to leave the Navy after nine years of service,” Withers writes in the liner notes to the 2005 reissue of his debut album, Just As I Am. “My girlfriend had left me. My apartment had been robbed. My job was threatening layoffs and I had cynically dubbed A&R, ‘Antagonistic and Redundant.’ ‘Gritty’ or not, I had the Blues.”
For his first four albums, Withers was the flagship act for Sussex Records, an independent run by Clarence Avant, one of the era’s rare African-American music execs. The debut’s budget wasn’t bottomless, but Booker T. Jones signed on to produce, with most of the MG’s in tow. Stephen Stills handled lead guitar instead of Steve Cropper, and on a few cuts Jim Keltner replaces drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Strings purposefully adorned. The even better follow-up, Still Bill, was produced by Withers with his preternaturally sympathetic group: Benorce Blackmon on second guitar, Ray Jackson on keyboards and arrangements, Melvin Dunlap on bass, and James Gadson, another Watts Band alum, on drums. (The percussionist Bobbye Hall Porter, part of that same band, is heard on other Withers albums.)
The Sussex albums are filled with layered, expertly crafted songs and performances built on musical ideas many writers of Withers’s caliber and era would want to gussy up. They’re models of humility and humbling models. “Well, this is what I can do,” Withers seems to say, shrugging over his lunch pail, “but this kind of simplicity might not work for you, seeing as how you have so little to say.”
“Harlem,” which opens Just As I Am and is expanded on the tough-minded Live at Carnegie Hall, builds its musical drama just by starting on an A7 chord and moving up in half steps, fret by fret, while the images accrue and the seasons change (you feel the night’s humidity in July, the damn radiator cool to the touch in January), the band giving every quarter note an exclamation point. For more than a few decades, piano students didn’t take long to stumble on “Lean on Me” while they were running the C major scale. Almost seems too simple, but then you try to give it real feeling, and it’s about as easy as transcribing Cecil Taylor.
All that three-chords-and-the-truth romance is insufferable when it opposes complexity as a rule, but “Use Me” has just two chords, and it’s basically a lie-detector test. It’s a song about great sex—the clavinet hook alone sounds like very good sex, so this is lifetime-highlight sex—unfortunately made possible by a bad relationship. “You get me in a crowd of high-class people,” Withers sings, “and then you act real rude to me,” conjuring in a few seconds the sick-making humiliation of being subtly but deliberately belittled by a partner in public. But then—and, alas, this, too, might be familiar—the narrator still wants to go home together (“Baby! Baby! I can’t get enough!”) What a painful, sexy song. What a deathless groove. Listen to drummer James Gadson, his standard-setting funk cross-stick (playing the rim of the snare with the fat end of the stick while resting your hand on the drum head), his relaxed but galvanizing bass drum, how he opens and closes his hi-hat like a cross between a judicious doorman and St. Peter.
Withers didn’t just tell stories—he staged them, starting in media res and choosing pungent dramatic details: a passer-by’s rivalrous stare, an anxious glance at the ground, a cleared throat. He wrote about working people in solidarity, without sentimentality. The details are plain but never pro forma. Grandma’s hands play a tambourine, lift a face, ache and swell, and you see them every time. He knows the power of proper name: The soldier in “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” wants his amanuensis to get his message to Rev. Harris, not just any preacher. He knows when to narrate and when to let the characters speak: “Mattie, don’t you whip that boy/What you want to spank him for?/He didn’t drop no apple core.” That’s how you get yourself back to the garden.
As Janet Maslin wrote in the 1976’s Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock, the mode of the singer/songwriter … was always more of a catchall than a legitimate musical genre.” Withers didn’t appear in Maslin’s chapter on singer-songwriters, and perhaps he didn’t quite fit: He played literary, sometimes autobiographical songs and strummed an acoustic guitar, but he wasn’t a confessional writer (but then neither was Randy Newman). And he didn’t have a backstory in song publishing, though he wanted one. Mostly, “singer-songwriter” as a short-lived commercial subgenre was seen as a white thing (practiced, of course, by musicians in love with black music), often an affluently bohemian white thing, and Withers wrote about working-class black experience. He was a singer-songwriter but also a funk troubabor and a wry, raconteur hitmaker with a cubby for the bills. Jim Croce, a lesser artist but an excellent craftsman, was a kindred spirit, though Withers would have edited the hell out of Leroy Brown and might have found something under the cartoon.
Withers’ last album came out in 1985. His wasn’t a reclusive, Salinger-type retirement, but it was an unusually and, it seems, a somewhat disgusted early exit for a major artist. His more glamorous records for Columbia—he left Sussex in the mid-’70s—aren’t as miraculous as the early work but full of treasures. “Lovely Day” tends to realize its title and has several of pop singing’s most delightfully sustained notes. He was a conversational baritone, not a flash singer, but commanding all the same, with an actor’s gifts befitting his lyrical sensibility.
A few Withers’ final hits were made in collaboration with some of the artists whose blend of jazz, R&B, gospel, pop, and funk would come to be called “smooth jazz.” A highlight is “Soul Shadows,” from the Crusaders’ 1980 album, Rhapsody and Blues, and written by the group’s brilliant keyboardist, Joe Sample, with Will Jennings. It’s a tribute to early jazz and its personal legacy in line with Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” “Riding with Fats Waller on the Super Chief,” Withers sings, “He said music’s real, the rest is seeming.” Bill Withers was never the rest.