Standing In The Gap Of The Real And Perceived
Bill Withers, man. Bill Withers. Gone.
Bill Withers was a quiet giant, even among the giants of popular music of the last fifty years. His unique sound was different than other R&B out at the time. It didn’t sound like anything else in the 1970s because Bill was not a raw piece of clay in the hands of music executives, nor was he a young man looking for an identity. He entered the music industry a full grown man, and he left the same way, intact, and on his own terms.
Withers was 33 years old before his first success, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” hit the charts. He had spent the first nine years of his early adulthood in the U.S. Navy, as an aircraft mechanic, to escape the hardscrabble existence of West Virginia coal country, where he was born and raised. He left the Navy in 1965 and worked a number of jobs related to aviation before his music career took off. The cover of his debut album, Just As I Am, was a picture of him getting off work at an aircraft parts factory, lunch pail in hand.
Unlike the smooth, meticulously crafted teen pop of early Motown, the rollicking Chicago blues of Chess, the overproduced candy of Phil Spector in L.A., or the explosive angst of Memphis’ Stax Records, Withers’ music was a chiller concoction of Delta blues and early funk, the anxiety of youth tempered by the reality of time. His melodies were simple and accessible, the production sparse, the beats cadently infectious, and the words clear as a bell. Withers’ lyrics were fully grounded in the more reflective, complicated trappings of adulthood, be it the anguish of lost fatherhood:
“Is she pretty? Has she grown?
Does she sleep well in a room of her own?
Can I see her? Does she know that I’m her daddy?”— I’m Her Daddy, “Just As I Am,” 1971
A friendly word to the impulses of youth:
“You can create a boom with catchy information
You can shake up a lot of people if you shout
But before you begin to grin about the success of your creation
You oughta take it all in and check it all out”Take It All In And Check It All Out, “Still Bill,” 1972
A plea for something more than free love:
“I wanna feel good just like you do
I haven’t loved in quite some time
I had some phases that I been through
Where I’ve just loved and left behind
“I’m just too tired of feeling guilty— Make Love To Your Mind, “Making Music,” 1975
I don’t wanna be unkind
But before I make love to your body
I wanna make love to your mind”
Or, finally, the comfort of a storge relationship:
We’ll have some love along the way
When is ain’t easy
We’ll look for some words of love to say
And smile and be happy anyway
And we’ll kiss before we say ‘Goodnight.'”— Whatever Happens, from “Watching You, Watching Me,” 1985
Never one to be owned, Withers left the industry, and music in general, after his 1985 album, “Watching You, Watching Me.” In that fifteen years of activity, however, he secured himself as one of the most covered and sampled artists of the last fifty years. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, and Crystal Gale, and sampled by just about every hip hop/rap artist you’ve ever heard, including Will Smith, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Snoop Dog, Eminem, DMX, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Shawn Mendes. In a very real way, Withers’ songs, long after he retired, have been chart toppers over and over again for 35 years since. That’s a pretty astounding feat from a man who admittedly hadn’t touched a guitar in 20 years and, when asked about his popularity in a Rolling Stone interview in 2015, upon the announcement that he would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said, “These days, I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”
In another interview the same year with the magazine Garden and Gun, Withers remarked of his induction, “I feel it’s healthier to look out at the world through a window rather than through a mirror. With a mirror, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.”
Wow. I still have a lot to learn.
Bill Withers, dead at 81. If he gets to Heaven, I hope he finds Grandma’s Hands.