Classics Revisited: Bill Withers, 'Still Bill'

The first half of the 1970s was the absolute golden era of soul music, black pop, R&B, whatever you care to call it. Iron-grip record labels like Motown and Stax/Volt had begun to loosen the reins a bit, and a handful of important artists--notably Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye--had effectively wrested artistic control and turned out masterpieces.

Classics Revisited: Bill Withers, 'Still Bill'

Al Green, Sly & the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Robert Flack, Donny Hathaway, Kool & the Gang, War, the Staple Singers, O'Jays, the Spinners, the Stylistics, Isaac Haynes, the Isley Brothers, Bobby Womack and other artists all made music that mattered. Even one-hit wonders like William DeVaughn ("Be Thankful For What You Got"), Timmy Thomas ("Why Can't We Live Together") and Billy Paul ("Me and Mrs. Jones") released estimable songs.

Right in the thick of all this artistic combustion was Bill Withers, a self-professed "black guy with an acoustic guitar" who made some of the most enduring songs of the era. Unfortunately, Withers' legacy does not match his achievements, and sometimes his name needs to be forced into the discussion about the great artists of the early 1970s.

Withers' second album Still Bill (1972), represents his pinnacle. It includes his biggest hits--"Lean on Me" (No. 1) and "Use Me" (No. 2)--but each of the 10 tracks is terrific in its own right. Withers puts his grainy, everyman voice to excellent use, evoking a conversational intimacy that helps put emotional heft into this thoughtful lyrics. Whether he's angry and paranoid, as on "Who is He (And What Is He To You)?" or tender ("Let Me in Your Life") or inspirational ("Lean on Me"), Withers is supremely communicative of his message.

As a producer, Withers favored stripped-down arrangements focusing on minimal guitar (sometimes a simple acoustic strum, sometimes with funky electric wah-wah), keyboards, drums and bass, decorated on occasion with strings. Somehow, Withers manages to sound at once down-home and jazzy, rural and urban, on Still Bill, a testament to his unique artistry.

Sony's 2003 reissue of Still Bill includes two bonus live tracks: "Lonely Town, Lonely Street" and "Let Me In Your Life."


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