- Feb 22 2023Bill Withers circa 1971.
Bill Withers: 10 of the Best
Bill Withers: 10 of the Best
Bill Withers was one of R&B/soul music's most revered artists. His songs weren’t just hits, they were modern standards – necessary hymns that cut through the noise with a searing poetic simplicity, making you feel every word he wrote and believe every word he sang.
Sadly, on Friday (April 3) last week, it was announced that the three-time Grammy Award winner had died on Monday (March 30) in Los Angeles from heart complications at the age of 81. News of his passing was announced with a statement from his family, saying:
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other. As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Withers’ career was brief in context to the enormity of his legacy. With an ability to negotiate heartbreak, history and complex emotions with transcendent integrity, dead-simple, soulful instrumentation and pure melodies; he managed to craft some of the most universal anthems of all time. There’s a lot to be learned from the depth of wisdom and innate perspective contained in Withers’ songs, and perhaps no better time to be reminded of the unifying emotions that draw humanity together in difficult times.
His passing comes at one of those difficult times, with the public recently drawing inspiration from Withers' anthemic “Lean on Me” to foster strength for healthcare workers on the frontline of the crisis.
So, in honour of one of the most authentic and powerful players music has ever known, here are 10 of Bill Withers’ best.
1. "Lean on Me" | Still Bill, 1972
Compelled to share his experience of community growing up in the mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, “Lean on Me” is as much about hardship as it is about grace. “I think what we say is influenced by how we are, what’s been our life experiences,” he once said. “That kind of circumstance would be more accessible to me than it would be to a guy living in New York, where people step over you if you’re passed out on the sidewalk."
The song was also his biggest hit … a No. 1 single that inspired the award-winning 1989 film of the same name and is still the go-to, unifying anthem in the event of crisis.
2. "Use Me" | Still Bill, 1972
“Use Me” is a tightly wound rumination on love that perfectly captures the angst and desire of a bad romance. The self-produced track was recorded with members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, for his second album, Still Bill in 1972, and was later covered by Grace Jones in 1981.
3. "Just the Two of Us" [with Grover Washington Jr] | Watching You Watching Me, 1981
Withers’ only album of the 1980s, Watching You Watching Me, came with this smoother-than-smooth collaboration with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. which was also a Grammy-winning No. 2 hit.
4. "Lovely Day" | Menagerie, 1978
It’s impossible to hear this song without feeling your spirits lifted! Every note glows, in the hands of producer Clarence McDonald and co-writer Skip Scarborough. “The way Skip was, every day was just a lovely day,” Withers testified. “Lovely Day” also contains a rare, but incredible example of vocal showboating from Withers when he sustains the word ‘daaaaaay’ at the end of the song for a record-breaking 18 seconds.
5. "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" | ‘Justments, 1974
"The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" is as seductive as it is despairing – you wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, but also, you wouldn't want to not.
6. "Grandma’s Hands" | Just As I Am, 1971
This two-minute ode to Withers' late grandmother, Lula is nothing short of a masterclass in songwriting. “Most of us at some point in our lives have somebody that means more to us than anybody has ever meant before or will ever mean again,” Withers said when introducing “Grandma’s Hands” at a 1973 BBC performance. “In my case, I learned how to really love somebody from … just a nice old lady who used some very nice old gnarled hands to make life kind of nice for me at that time when I really needed somebody. Out of all the things that I might have written, my favorite thing has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.”
7. "I Can’t Write Left Handed” | Live At Carnegie Hall, 1973
Withers brings his trademark grace to this fiery, yet heart-breaking anti-war song. The song itself is an act of profound empathy, the type that flows from “Lean on Me” and proves him somehow capable of carrying all of humanity on his reassuring shoulders.
8. “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” | Still Bill, 1972
“Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” is a good old fashioned lesson in less is more – how cool, calm and collected can cut so much deeper than a fiery rant. An exemplar of the aforementioned grace that underpinned Withers’ entire catalogue.
9. "Harlem" | Just As I Am, 1971
“Harlem” was Withers’ debut single and the opening track on 1971's Just As I Am’s. The gritty ghetto retrospective tells a tale of callous landlords and crooked preachers. But, as Withers always manages to find, there is indeed a silver lining – come Saturday night, he can still go out and party and “everything’s all right”.
10 "Ain't No Sunshine" | Just As I Am, 1971
“Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you,” Bill Withers once said. But he knew there were no words to explain why knowing this doesn’t make you miss it any less. He chose to sum up this age-old rhetorical nerve by with singing “I know” 26 times in a row – pure truth, honesty and compassion.
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