Today 03:10 PM

How Bill Withers Defined Soulful Selflessness


"He treated his utterly distinctive voice as a vehicle, not a centerpiece, and wrote songs about everyday lives with remarkable compassion.

The music of Bill Withers radiated a quality that’s rare in pop songs and, really, anywhere else: selflessness.
It’s in the subjects that Withers, who died on Monday, chose to sing about: his grandmother’s hard-won wisdom in “Grandma’s Hands,” the suicidal regrets of a failed husband in “Better Off Dead,” and in one of his most indelible songs, “Lean on Me,” a churchy pledge of unconditional help and compassion.
Perhaps it was because Withers was already a grown-up, in his early 30s, when his recording career started. He was raised in a large family in West Virginia coal country, served in the Navy and worked factory jobs before getting the chance to record. He hadn’t been sheltered from the everyday lives that he would write about.

Withers’s most triumphant years, the early 1970s, were also an idealistic time for soul music. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire and others were writing community-minded songs that melded urban realism and utopian aspiration. Withers could be every bit their peer, particularly in the ways he brought big issues down to personal stories, like his portrait of a badly wounded Vietnam veteran, “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” And when he wasn’t observing outside characters, Withers could also depict the deepest jealousy, loneliness and melancholy, in songs like “Who Is He (And What Is He to You),” “You,” and his despondent megahit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a model of profound simplicity.

His voice was at the center of every song, reedy and gritty, strong enough for preacherly declamations and smooth enough to carry a lover’s endearments. Yet he chose to treat that utterly distinctive voice modestly — as a vehicle, not a centerpiece. He sang his stories with down-home fervor, but he was also more than willing to let the sense of the words dissolve into rhythm and incantation, into impulses and feelings.
Withers made it seem — with deep-rooted knowledge and virtuoso skill — that each song was creating its own borderless style and groove on the spot, steeped in but never beholden to blues, gospel, country, jazz, folk, rock or any other defined idiom. Imagine Withers’s voice removed from songs like the defiant “Use Me,” and the grooves he devised (with his top-notch studio bands) nearly capture the mood on their own — though Withers’s vocals would also engage those grooves with every phrase.

Withers was ill-used by a recording business that second-guessed his songwriting. In his acceptance speech at his long-belated 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, he defined A&R, record label jargon that stands for artists and repertoire, as “antagonistic and redundant.” After his 1974 album “+‘Justments,” filled with brooding songs about love gone wrong, Withers and his new label, Columbia, recast him as a more conventional romantic crooner. He had some suavely commercial moments: “Lovely Day” in 1977, which for its final minute flaunts one almost impossibly sustained note after another, and “Just the Two of Us,” which appeared on a 1980 album by the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.

Withers’s musical ingenuity lingers on his later albums in some eccentric rhythm tracks and sly chord progressions — and he did manage to resist making disco. But the joyful, risky self-invention of his early albums had given way to professionalism. He made his last album in 1985, then earned a living from his publishing catalog, refusing offers to record again.
The Withers album to savor is the one he recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1972. He brought a band of first-call studio musicians and gathered all of his best early material, seasoned by serious touring. Songs that had been limited to three minutes in studio versions get a chance to groove longer and harder: “Use Me” rides a backbeat of audience handclaps to syncopated ecstasy, and tops that with a reprise. Withers’s voice had a rawer tone than his studio performances without sacrificing any improvisational subtleties.

And the songs were populated not with one singer’s ego, but with friends, relatives, lovers, rivals and, in an all-out 13-minute, key-changing, wah-wah throwdown, a week in the life of an entire neighborhood, “Harlem.”
It’s not about Withers; it’s about music where everybody lives.'

He treated his utterly distinctive voice as a vehicle, not a centerpiece, and wrote songs about everyday lives with remarkable compassion.

Bill Withers began his recording career in his 30s, which meant he hadn’t been sheltered from the everyday lives he would write about.Credit...Jake Michaels for The New York Times

By Jon Pareles

  • April 4, 2020

Today 02:12 PM

Motown and Berry Gordy Jr.'s Children

Does anyone know why Berry Gordy Jr.'s children did not take over the operations of Motown?
Today 01:38 PM

The Williams Brothers "It Was You" Featuring Detroit's Bishop Paul S. Morton

Hi SDF Fam,

I believe we all can use a little uplifting of our spirits during this trying time. The Williams Brothers "It Was You" featuring Detroit's Bishop Paul S. Morton, is sure to give us hope for today, tomorrow, and our future. The Word says: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

The Williams Brother, "It Was You" featuring Detroit's Bishop Paul. S. Morton LIVE! from New Orleans (May 1994)

Today 12:04 PM

Amos Milburn - Darling How Long

Whilst not being a huge fan of blues I found myself drawn to this beautiful song by Amos Milburn. The song predates his Motown period by a good few years but it was re-recorded at Hitsville and produced by Clarence Paul.

I think it has a beauty that wasn't quite the same with his previous recording of the song but as far as I can tell the Motown version wasn't available on YouTube until now. There's a simplicity about it and you almost feel you're in the same room as the piano which sounds great. I love it but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. Thank you Amos, and Motown for this.

Today 03:11 PM

Bill Withers has passed!


RIP to one of my all time favorites! I hope he finds his “Grandma’s Hands” up there.
Today 01:32 PM

This x-rated intro version of The Manhattans KISS AND SAY GOODBYE- Authentic?

I 'm a big Bobby Martin fan and when first finding this never wanted to believe he would disrespect his own work in this way ..... Still this version posted since 2012 , claiming to be a promo from 1976, remains on youtube unchallenged. A couple of comments there imply owning or at least remembering it ....

Anybody have any information regarding this ????:confused:


Ralph Terrana

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