I think the thing that I like most about Bill Withers is no matter what the song, this is a man who knows how to tell a story. He's like Stevie Wonder in that way.
Whether it's the story of a small coal mining town holding together during hard times ("Lean on Me")
or a man driven to depression by the prospect of a missing love ("Ain't No Sunshine")
or a jealous lover driven to paranoia ("Who is He and What is He to You?"),
there's always a narrative. The writing is thoughtful, true, and beautifully haunting. And don't even start on the voice. Bill Withers could sing the ingredients from a bag of Doritos and make it soulful.
One of my favorite Withers songs is "I'm Her Daddy" which appears on his first album, Just As I Am. It's important to note that at the time of this recording, Withers was no spring chicken. He had served in the military as a mechanic for nearly a decade before he gave the music business a shot. The album was produced by the very funky Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs, who told Withers to simply, "do what you do, and do it good."
"I'm Her Daddy" is all about a man confronting the former lover who never told him he had a six year old daughter. Withers has a way of taking heartbreak and making it feel so bad that it feels good. By the time he gets to the "I'm Her Daddy" part in the song, you want to cry for the father's loss, but you can't smile at the depth of his love. And how many songs have you heard where a Black man sings so powerfully about the love of a daughter he has never met?
It looks like they're making a movie about Withers' life, called Still Bill. The teaser looks excellent and I hope it gets widely released. It's interesting because Withers says he is content to remain out of the spotlight, besides writing the occasional song, but beneath the surface there also seems to be a bit of uneasiness (or dare I say fear?) about how he'll be remembered. People ask him to sing or when he's going on tour again and he plays it off as a joke. The clip ends with Cornel West stumping Withers by asking him what he thinks his musical legacy will be.
Not known for his sensitivity
It reminds me of an anecdote I read in an old news story about James Brown. The great Fred Wesley was talking about how much of a jerk the Godfather of Soul was being to the other acts he was touring with and how he wouldn't stop riding Withers, telling him how bad a singer he was. Brown was known for his cruelty and ego, so it's not that surprising he would say something stupid like that, but I bet that wasn't so easy for Withers to brush off. And even if it was, it must have been hard for Withers to shake the feeling of being an outsider in the music business. He came to it at an older age, his sound wasn't easy to classify, and he talked about stuff that was real.
I'm not sure what it is, but whatever is keeping him from coming back, I wish he would get over it because I know there are a people (including myself) who would give just about anything to see him perform again.