BILL WITHERS-STILL BILL.

BILL WITHERS-STILL BILL.

A year after the release of his debut album Just As I Am, Bill Withers released what would prove to be his most successful album ever, Still Bill. Not only did it build on the success of his debut album Just As I Am, it became the first of two of his albums to be certified gold and contained two huge hit singles. While Just As I Am had reached number thirty-five in the US Billboard 200 and number nine in the US R&B Charts, Still Bill had much more crossover appeal, reaching number four in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Still Bill also featured one of Bill’s best songs, Lean On Me, which reached number one in the Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts, which Rolling Stone magazine rated number 205 in their list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time. Following the success of Lean On Me, Use Me was released as a single, reaching number two in the Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. Although Bill Withers would go on to release five further albums, nothing would match the success of Still Bill. However, what made Still Bill such a successful album?

For the followup to Just As I Am, Bill Withers wrote eight tracks himself and cowrote two other tracks. The two tracks Bill cowrote, were Who Is He (and What Is He To You?) with Stanley McKenny, and Another Day To Run with Benorce Blackmon. These ten tracks were recorded at the Record Plant in Los Angeles with a band that included the rhythm section of bassist Melvin Dunlap, drummer James Gadson and guitarist Benorce Blackmon. Together with percussionist Bobbye Hall and Raymond Jackson who played piano, clarinet and arranged the strings and horns. With the ten tracks that made up Still Bill recorded, the album was set for release in May 1972, exactly a year after Bill released his debut album.

Two months before Still Bill was released, Bill’s 1971 single Ain’t No Sunshine won a Grammy Award for the Best R&B Song. Little did he know that 1972 would be the most successful of his career. The success started when Still Bill was released to critical acclaimed. This critical acclaim translated into sales, surpassing the success of Just As I Am. Still Bill reached number four in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Further success would head Bill’s way when  Lean On Me was released as a single, reaching number one in both the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. Since then, the song has been covered by many artists, with Bill’s version rated number 205 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time. Use Me was chosen as the followup to Lean On Me, reaching number two in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Chart. Again, the track has been covered by many artists, with Esther Phillips’ version one of the best. After the success of Still Bill and the two singles released from the album, Bill must have been unable to comprehend the success that had come his way during 1972. After all, only a few years before, Bill was still working full time in a factory and singing at weekends. However, what made Still Bill such a hugely successful album?

Opening Still Bill is Lonely Town, Lonely Street one of the eight tracks written by Bill. Keyboards and guitar combine, creating waves of dramatic music, before Bill’s powerful, but soulful vocal enters. He’s accompanied by lush strings that sweep and quiver above his vocal. Still, the keyboard and guitar create that recurring riff, while Bill’s thoughtful vocal. Although the structure of the arrangement is quite simple, it’s effective and the perfect backdrop for Bill to deliver some thoughtful, poignant lyrics.

On Let Me In Your Life Bill delivers one of his most heartfelt vocals on Still Bill. This he does against a beautiful understated arrangement. Just a bed of strings accompany the rhythm section and guitars who play thoughtfully and with a subtlety. It’s as if Bill’s band are determined that his beautiful, heartfelt vocal should take centre-stage, where it deserves to be.  

Who Is He (And What Is He To You) is a track about the complicated nature of relationships. The rhythm section create an arrangement that arrives in waves, while Bill’s vocal is probing, full of suspicion and insecurities. His suspicions are highlighted by quivering strings, while the rest of the arrangement is moody and broody. Later, wah-wah guitars add to the drama of the track, while Bill is still racked by insecurity and suspicions. For many people, this will be a track that speaks to them, and that sadly, they’ll have experienced too. However, for a very different version, track down Creative Source’s version of Who Is He (And What Is He To You).

Use Me is a track that’s been covered by many artists, including Mick Jagger and Esther Phillips to name but two. Bill wrote the song about after his friends discouraged him to get involved in a one-way relationship, where he would end up being used. His original version is quite different from later versions. A buzzing bass, drums and percussion accompany Bill’s vocal, which one minute is full of emotion, frustration and anger, the next sultry and sensuous. Much as I love Bill’s delivery, his delivery is as good as Esther Phillips,’ who struts her way through the track in a sassy, sensual way.

Lean On Me is another of the classic tracks Bill Withers wrote. On Just As I Am there was Ain’t No Sunshine, while Still Bill had Lean On Me, a track which has been much covered. Of all the versions I’ve heard, I still prefer Bill’s. Just a piano, subtle drums and organ accompany Bill. His vocal starts way down low, growing in power, emotion and sincerity. Lush strings sweep in, adding to the beauty and emotion of the track. Later, Bill is briefly accompanied by handclaps, as he starts to make the track swing. This is just a curveball, before this track about friendship and loyalty heads to a beautiful and emotive crescendo.

Kissing My Love was the first track on side two of Still Bill. Just the rhythm section, wah-wah guitars and piano accompany Bill’s joyful, thankful vocal. Strings lush and sweet, sweep in as Bill’s vocal grows in power and emotion. He’s accompanied by cascading strings which drift in and out, while the rhythm section, wah-wah guitars and flourishes of piano are constant companions to his joyous, thankful vocal.

An electric guitar and gentle flourishes of piano accompany Bill as I Don’t Know unfolds. Again, the track benefits from an understated, subtle arrangement. None of the musicians overplay, instead play around Bill’s vocal. His vocal is heartfelt, full of feeling. Later, it drops out replaced by a guitars solo that meanders across the arrangement, before his loose, wistful vocal returns adding the finishing touch to this quite beautiful love song.

Another Day To Run is one of two tracks Bill cowrote. His songwriting partner was guitarist Benorce Blackmon who played on Still Bill. Hissing hit-hats, a funky rhythm section and piano accompany Bill. They create an arrangement that one minute, unfolds in waves, before meandering gently along. Benorce Blackmon adds a jazz-tinged guitar solo, while Bill’s vocal is an amalgamation of styles. It ranges from confident powerful and passionate, to a thoughtful, wistful style. Similarly, the arrangement changes, matching Bill’s power and passion step for step. This is perfect for the lyrics, with his versatility the benefit of all the years Bill spent honing and perfecting his style and delivery.

Straight away, when I Don’t Want You On My Mind opens there’s a real bluesy sound and style apparent. Just the rhythm section and guitar are responsible for this. Bill responds to this change in style seamlessly, delivering his vocal in a similar bluesy style. His delivery is full of frustration and anger. When his vocal drops out, his band demonstrate just how talented they are, providing a blues drenched backdrop that’s a perfect fit for Bill’s vocal. 

Closing Still Bill is Take It All In And Check It All Out another track written by Bill. It’s just a wah-wah guitar, rhythm section and acoustic guitar that accompany Bill. His vocal is accompanied by bursts of funky wah-wah guitar from Benorce Blackmon, who shows just how talented a guitarist he is. Meanwhile, Bill’s vocal fails to match the standard of other tracks. It just lacks the emotion and passion of previous tracks. This is a shame as the lyrics deserve a better delivery and this is a disappointing way to close Still Bill.

Although Bill Withers was thirty-four when he released his second album Still Bill, the time he’d spent honing his sound and learning his craft had been well spent. Before he signed his first recording contract, he’d been working in a factory, while singing at the weekend. Then his life was transformed in 1970, when he signed to Sussex Records. Less than a year later, Just As I Am was released in May 1971, to critical acclaim. This lead to Bill winning a Grammy Award for the Best R&B Song in March 1972, for his 1971 single Ain’t No Sunshine. That however, was just the start of a remarkable year for Bill Withers. The followup to Just As I Am, Still Bill, surpassed the success of his debut album and became the most successful album of his career. Not only was it certified gold, but contained two hugely successful singles, with Lean On Me reaching number one in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. What makes Still Bill such a critically acclaimed and commercially successful album are the ten songs, eight of which wrote and the other two he cowrote. Together with a small, tight and talented band Bill breathed life and meaning into his lyrics, delivering them beautifully, with variously, emotion, passion, frustration and joy. Even though Bill Withers released five further albums, none on them matched the thirty-six memorable and beautiful minutes that make up Still Bill. Standout Tracks: Who Is He (And What Is He To You), Use Me, Lean On Me and I Don’t Know. 

BILL WITHERS-STILL BILL.


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