BILL WITHERS-JUST AS I AM.
BILL WITHERS-JUST AS I AM.
How Bill Withers came to become one of the biggest artists of the seventies and eighties, is a fascinating story. Born in 1938, in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill’s father died when he was twelve years old. Aged eighteen, Bill joined the US Navy, where he spent nine years. It was during that time, that Bill started writing and singing. After leaving the navy in 1965, Bill headed to Los Angeles in 1967 looking to pursue a musical career. So that he could afford to record demo tapes, he worked in assembly for various companies. At night, Bill sang in LA nightclubs, while waiting and hoping for his breakthrough. Then in early 1970, Bill got a breakthrough. He’d sent a demo tape to Sussex Records, where Clarence Avant realized Bill’s potential. Clarence signed Bill to Sussex Records, hiring Booker T. Jones to produce his debut album. This debut album, Just A I Am, which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 7th May 2012, would contain one of Bill’s most famous songs, Ain’t No Sunshine, and give him a number five album in the US R&B Charts. After this, Bill’s days of assembling aircraft parts were seemingly over. However, he was reluctant to give up his day-job, perceiving the music industry as unstable, especially for a new, up and coming act. Thankfully, he decided to give up his day-job, to concentrate on music, releasing five albums that reached the top ten in the US R&B Charts and two were certified gold. Just As I Am was the album that started Bill’s long and illustrious career, and after I’ve told you about the background to the album, I’ll tell you about the music on it.
Having signed to Sussex Records, Clarence Avant hired Booker T. Jones to produce Bill Withers’ debut album. For the recording sessions at Sunset Sound Recorders and Wally Helder Recording Studios, Booker T. Jones the frontman for Booker T. and The MGs put together one of the tightest, most talented bands. This included his band mates bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr., while Booker would also play guitar and keyboards as well as producing the album. Stephen Stills played guitar, Jim Keltner drums and on bass, Chris Etridge, who sadly, died on 23rd April 2012. Percussion player Bobbie Hall Porter was the last member of this multitalented band.
Now that Bill had a backing band in place, the recording sessions could get underway. Twelve tracks were chosen for the album, ten of which Bill had written himself. One of these songs would become synonymous with Bill Withers, Ain’t No Sunshine, which gave Bill the first big hit of his career. There are two cover versions on the album. The first is a cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin,’ first recorded by Fred Neil on his second album, 1966s Fred Neil and later covered by Harry Nilsson. The second cover version is a cover of The Beatles’ Let It Be, which they’d released as a single in March 1970. With these two cover versions, plus the ten songs written by Bill recorded, what would be come Just As I Am was scheduled for released later in 1971.
Before the release of Just As I Am, the label decided to release Harlem as a single in April 1971. On the B-side, was Ain’t No Sunshine. Harlem wasn’t a success as a single. However, Lady Luck decided to intervene. DJs decided to flip the single over, playing Ain’t No Sunshine instead. The following month, May 1971, the album Just As I Am was released. It reached number thirty-five in the US Billboard 200 and number nine in the US R&B Charts. After DJs started playing Ain’t No Sunshine, Sussex Records decided to release it as a single, reaching number three in the US Billboard 100 and number six in the US R&B Charts. Since then, Ain’t No Sunshine has been ranked at number 280 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list if 500 songs of all time. Then in October 1971, Grandma’s Hands was the third and final single released from Just As I Am. It reached number forty-two in the US Billboard 100 and number eighteen in the US R&B Charts. Although Bill Withers nascent solo career had got off to a successful start, he was loathe to give up his day-job. He thought the music industry as unstable, especially for a new, up and coming act. In reality though, his days of working assembling airplanes was long gone. Just As I Am was just the first of seven successful solo albums Bill Withers would release during the seventies. However, why was Just As I Am such a successful debut album from Bill Withers?
Opening Just As I Am was Bill’s debut single Harlem, a song Bill had been inspired to write after visiting New York. It’s a track that gradually builds, revealing some powerful lyrics and a dramatic arrangement from Booker T. Washington. Key to this are the strings and rhythm section, adding drama and driving the track along. With just acoustic guitar and cascading strings, Bill’s thoughtful vocal enters. The rhythm section provide the song’s heartbeat and drama, while the strings soar high above the rest of the arrangement. As the track progresses, it reveals its charms and some vivid lyrics about life in Harlem. By then, the rhythm section and strings have combined to provide a dramatic backdrop for Bill’s emotive, thoughtful vocal. This gets the album of to a storming start, and should the rest of Just As I Am be of a similar standard, then this will prove to be an incredible debut album from Bill Withers.
Although I’ve probably heard Ain’t No Sunshine hundreds of times, I’m still bewitched and enthralled by song’s beauty. Personally, I find it incredible that this was originally chosen just as the B-side of Harlem, when it has hit written all over it. This is the case from the opening bars when Bill’s vocal, full of sadness enters, with just an acoustic guitar accompanying him. Lush, sad sounding strings, percussion and an understated rhythm section combine with Bill’s vocal, for two of the most beautiful, enthralling and saddest minutes of music you’ll ever hear.
Grandma’s Hands was the third single released from Just As I Am. It’s a story that tells a story from a personal perspective, paying homage to his grandmother Lula Carter Galloway. There’s a bluesy, understated sound to the track, with Bill’s impassioned vocal, accompanied by the rhythm section. They provide a subtle, thoughtful, bluesy backdrop to Bill’s vocal, allowing his heartfelt vocal quite rightly, to take centre-stage.
Sweet Wanomi is a celebratory song, about laying in back beside the one he loves. The track opens with just Bill and acoustic guitar combining, before revealing Booker T. Jones on keyboards and swathes of slow, lush strings. Bill’s vocal is blissful and sincere, while Booker T. Jones’ keyboards drift in and out and strings add to the song’s beauty.
Everybody’s Talkin’ written by Fred Neil and made famous by Harry Nilsson, is covered by Bill. He transforms the song, giving it a bluesy, rocky twist. When the song opens, you realise straight away, that something special is about to unfold. It’s a multilayered arrangement, with acoustic guitar, rhythm section and then Bill’s almost angry vocal entering. Slow strings add another layer of music, adding to the rhythm section and guitars that accompany Bill’s impassioned, sometimes scatted vocal. By the end of the track, Bill has transformed the track, turning it into something very different and very special from previous versions, giving the track the new life and new meaning.
As Do It Good opens the track has a jazzy sound. It’s just guitar, rhythm section, keyboards and then backing vocalists that combine. The backing vocalists are key to the track, especially the good-natured interplay between Bill and them. They unite, delivering punchy backing vocals, before Bill’s vocal enters. His lyrics jocular quality remind me of Nina Simone’s Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter. As Bill sings, then vamps his way through the track, the backing vocalists soulful interjections provide a contrast. Meanwhile, the band jam, providing a sympathetic backdrop to Bill’s vocal on this intriguing track, that shows another side to Bill and his music.
There’s a poignancy and melancholy nature to the lyrics of Hope She’ll Be Happier. It’s a breakup song, Bill playing the heartbroken lover, whose partner has left him for another guy. With just a wistful picked electric guitar playing Bill’s heartbroken vocal enters an arrangement that’s full of space. Then stabs of a Hammond organ enter, adding to the atmosphere, while subtle, distant drums gently add to the atmosphere. As the song progresses, the emotion and sadness in Bill’s vocal grows. Combined with the atmospheric, emotive arrangement, this results in one of the highlights of Just As I Am.
Just over a year earlier, The Beatles released Let It Be as a single. Here, Bill grabs the song by the neck and transformed it into a gospel-tinged track. His vocal is joyous, backed by handclaps and Booker T. Jones on Hammond organ. The track swings along, very different and much better than the original, which to me, was hardly the most uplifting and joyful of The Beatles’ back-catalogue.
I’m Her Daddy is a story about discovering that you’re the father of a six year old daughter. During the song, Bill questions the mother about his estranged daughter, trying to find out about her. He delivers his a vocal that’s part joy and trepidation, against an arrangement that’s slightly rocky, and quite dramatic. Drums are to the fore, while guitars add to the track’s drama and emotion. However, for me, what makes the track, are emotions present in Bill’s vocal.
In My Heart sees a lovelorn Bill just accompanied by acoustic guitar. His vocal is laden with emotion and sadness, but heartfelt and full of sincerity. He really lets his voice go, delivering one of the most poignant vocals on the album. Although he’s just accompanied by acoustic guitar, this works well, allowing the listener to focus purely in Bill’s heartfelt, sincere and impassioned delivery of the vocals.
Moanin’ And Groanin’ is a three minute paean to a woman Bill misjudged. It seems she was twice the woman he thought she was. He’s accompanied by backing vocalists, acoustic guitars and an understated rhythm section. Mostly, it’s just pounding drums, acoustic and electric guitars that accompany Bill, with backing vocalists accompanying him. Containing elements of soul, blues and rock, Bill delivers a vocal that’s impassioned, powerful and soulful.
Closing Just As I Am, is Better Off Dead, that’s funkier than the two track it can be compared with Ain’t No Sunshine and Hope She’ll Be Happier. Whereas on these two tracks Bill was heartbroken and distraught, here he’s given up hope, not just at seeing his partner, but hope with life. It’s just over two minutes of desperation, with a real twist in the tail. The rhythm section, guitars and keyboards accompany Bill, reflecting the darkness and despair in his voice. His vocal is laden with sadness, despair and darkness. This darkness is reflected with the song’s twist in the tail, the sound of a gun exploding as the song ends.
Over the years, I’ve heard many debut albums, but rarely, have I come across as highly accomplished debut album as Bill Withers’ Just As I Am. It’s not just his talent as a singer, but just as importantly his skill as a songwriter and storyteller. His songs are emotional dramas, that tell stories of love and heartbreak. They’re full of joy, heartbreak and as Better Off Dead shows, darkness and drama. Maybe why he was such an accomplished singer and songwriter is that he’d spent many years learning his craft. Unlike many singers and songwriters, Bill was older, aged thirty-three when Just As I Am was released. He’d lived, maybe more than a little, had seen and experienced many things during his lifetime. This meant the storyline to many of his songs were about things people could relate to. That’s why the ten songs he wrote for Just As I Am were just so good. Even the cover versions worked. His covers of Everybody’s Talkin’ and Let It Be brought these songs to life, transformed them. That’s why I can’t recommend this album highly enough. Bill Withers’ debut Just As I Am is one of these albums that anyone who loves good music should either discover or rediscover. Just As I Am is an album crammed full of some great music from the hugely talented singer, musician and songwriter…Bill Withers. Standout Tracks: Harlem, Ain’t No Sunshine, Hope She’ll Be Happier and I’m Her Daddy.
BILL WITHERS-JUST AS I AM.