Bill Withers was a factory worker. He was writing and playing music and was signed to a record label. He didn’t think it would last so he kept his job. He’s standing outside of his place of work on his first album cover. The first two albums are his best. They act as a piece, you get the sense that all the songs were ready to go and he just spread them over the first couple albums. This wasn’t uncommon but I’m not sure if that was really the case. And I know I could go look it up but I don’t want to. Somethings are better not researched. Let’s just decide to not find out.
Bill has an unique voice. No-one sounds like him. He doesn’t hit every note and you get the sense that he could’ve done a few more takes, especially on the first record, but, like JJ Cale’s first album “Naturally” – which deserves its own blog or book or something – you get the sense that Bill was perfectly happy with what he heard playing back in the speakers and said to producer “sounds good, let’s keep moving”.
Of course we all know the hits- “Lean On Me”, “Use Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine” for starters. But it’s the other tracks that really delight. They are often as good or better than the hits and, you aren’t sick of them yet. I’m not sure I can hear “Hope She’ll Be Happier” too many times. It is some kind of perfection. Bill Withers has soul, and not just in the Motown sense. He has a deep well of human knowing.
Another great stop on the Bill Wither’s journey is the double live LP from Carnegie Hall. They kept in a lot of the dialog and there are some great exclusive tracks like the Vietnam inspired “I Can’t Write Left Handed” which is a heartbreaker. He didn’t play live much, from what I have read, and so this probably his way of getting the experience out there without actually going out there. Marvin Gaye was similar. He hated touring in the 70s and instead put out two live albums. Surrogates.
One quick word about production before we go. If you have any inclination to get the original vinyl records, do it. They are well pressed, pretty available at decent prices ($20 or less) and sound amazing. If you want to know why people say vinyl sounds different, this would be a good place to start. Even the hits have a personality that I missed when I heard them on the radio growing up.
The late 60s and early 70s were the golden age of recording and vinyl. Studios were entirely analog but had expanded to 16 track machines. They also had great gear- mics, effects, amps, etc. Add to this, the vinyl industry was at its peak in terms of quality and quantity. This driven by better and better home systems, pushing an audiophile culture that originated in the 50s. So, this all adds up to original pressings of albums from this time often being the best sounding format to hear the music. It also happens to be Rock’s golden age.