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Friday, April 03, 2020

RIP Bill Withers - The passing of a legend

(An appreciation by Steve T)

For many of us, the early seventies were the golden age of soul music, and perhaps particularly the male soul singer. Bill had the most singularly distinctive voice of them all, with a warm and soulful tone that set him apart from the rest.

This meant he always remained distinct from the mainstream of soul music; as much a singer/songwriter, and with a folk sensibility, which ensured his story-telling had an accessibility and familiarity which marked his music out as timeless.   

Following his debut single in 1967 - which did nothing - he emerged in 1971 aged 32 with his debut album Just as I Am and its first single Ain't No Sunshine.

The follow-up album Still Bill from the following year was even better and spawned another single which has been entirely absorbed into British and American consciousness - Lean on Me

Had he never recorded another song, these two alone would mark him out as a songwriter of almost unparalleled depth and universality. That these two albums also included most of his greatest hits, including Harlem, Grandma's Hands, Better off Dead, Lonely Town Lonely Street, Let me in Your Life, Who is he? and What is he to You?  and Use Me illustrate just how significant a new voice he was at this time.  
A highly regarded live album* followed with a powerful new anti-Vietnam song I Can't Write Left-handed.

He kept making quality albums through the mid-seventies but dropped off the radar of all but his fans and the soul fraternity until he had one more smash in 1977 with Lovely Day from the album Menagerie.

Another album followed two years later and his final album came six years after that in 1985, but his greatest success during these years came from featuring on various cuts by established jazz-funk acts: Just the Two of Us with Grover Washington Jr., In the Name of Love with (percussionist) Ralph MacDonald and Soul Shadows with the Crusaders.

I got to see him live at Newcastle City Hall sometime in the mid-eighties and the small audience, at his request, moved to the front where he held court like a favourite uncle who sang a bit. He came in through the front door where a friend of mine with a spare ticket tried to sell it to him!

In his book, Spinning Around: a History of the Soul LP (Vol 2), soul fan extraordinaire John Lias wrote: “Still Bill, a lovely 2009 documentary about Withers, proved what I had always suspected after living with his music for nearly four decades; he is one of the nicest men ever to grace the music industry, a business he liked to keep at arm’s length”.

He was one of the unsung giants, not just of soul music, but of all American Music. 

He died on Monday (March 30) aged 81.
Steve T
*John Lias placed it no 7 in his top 100 soul albums from the latter half of the alphabet (K-Z).      


Russell said...

A marvellous tribute, Steve. As you say, two great tunes, if he was to write nothing else his place in history was assured.

NeilC said...

A wonderful tribute Steve and a lovely anecdote about the ticket . I think a lot of egotistical musicians could learn a lot from his life, a very down to earth man with no fanciful airs and graces and such a wonderful musician . A very sad loss

Patti said...

Oh yes - a heartfelt tribute from you, Steve - to this beautiful voice ...... just what we need to be listening to in times like this.

Steve T said...

If they do it again at 8 on thurs we should all crank Lean on Me out of our doors and windows.

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