Bill Withers “Just As I Am”

 

Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#505 in the Series) is Bill Withers, Just As I Am

By all rights the Bill Withers album Just As I Am should never have been made. It’s not that the talent was not here, it certainly was, it’s just that it is not often that when a record company needs to take promotional pictures for an album that they have to work around the artist’s break times during his 8-5 job at a Boeing plant making airplane toilets.

In 1967 Bill Withers, fresh from a discharge from the Navy and bolstered by his fellow sailor’s encouragement and recognition of his talent, moved to the west coast to make some demo records and pursue his dream of landing a recording contract. There he landing a job at the Los Angeles division of Boeing Airlines and starting working the streets in an attempt to get his music to the right ears.  From a statistical standpoint, the odds of someone with loads of talent but no formal musical training, no mentor, and no money, are somewhere between slim and not happening and slim just left town.  In the late sixties there was no internet, no You Tube, and no American Idol to get your voice heard.  Also working against him was that the musical buzz in the Los Angeles area was surrounding the California-Noir artists like The Eagles, CSN & Y, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. L.A. was a long way from Motown.

But as fate sometimes happens, especially for those that work hard, Bill was introduced to Sussex Record’s President Clarence Avent who liked his more laid back soul/R&B vibe that was a marked departure from the energetic dynamos of Motown and the soul screamers of Stax Records.

Avent immediately assigned Withers to work with Booker T. Washington of Booker T. and the MG’s fame and work soon began on what was to be the beginning of a short yet legacy filled music career.

The appropriately named Just As I Am was recorded on a limited budgeted and as a result took several months to complete.  The budget was so limited that at one point Bill was evicted from the studio for a time until adequate funding could be secured.  The monetary issues did not seem to lessen the artistic impact however as contributions from MG Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Stephen Stills replacing Steve Cropper on guitar brought a tight knit sound and an air of professionalism to the proceedings

The album itself is a stellar combination of Wither’s own soulful home spun compositions along with a couple of carefully selected cover versions, one of which is the Harry Nilsson classic “Everybody’s Talking” and the other the Beatles “Let It Be”.  While they don’t rise to the “made the songs his own” heights they are fine soulful versions.

The strength here in this rookie effort is the songwriting and soulful from the heart grooves put on display in the Classic original songs “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”.  “Grandma’s Hands” has been covered by many R&B singers most notably Keb’ Mo’, and Ain’t No Sunshine became an instant classic earning a Grammy for Withers in 1971.  The rest of the original recordings including the socially aware “Harlem” and the emotionally powerful “I’m Her Daddy” speak to a man that marches to his own drum and answers to a higher power.

The sixth song of the album “Do It Good” pretty much sums up the entire proceedings.

  “If you want to kiss a funky beagle, hitch a ride upon an eagle, read a catalog from Spiegel. Go on and do it, do it, go on and do it to it….but do it good.”

Mid-way through the song Bill tells us in a short monologue that “when I came in here to try and do this, something I have never done before, Mr. Jones , Booker T. said to me don’t worry about it, just do what you do and do it good”.

And that’s exactly what he did with his follow-up effort “Still Bill” that included the stand out hits “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” as well as the Bobby Womack influenced “Lonely Town, Lonely Street”.

Shortly after these two classic albums were released Withers followed up with a series of un-remarkable efforts the best of which being “Menagerie” where Bill tries his hand at “bedroom grooves” along with a disco tinged song, “Lovely Day” that reached the top 30.  After that he essentially disappeared and except for a brief sighting with “Just the Two of Us” recorded with Grover Washington Jr., he was out of the record business.

Where is Rick Rubin when we need him?

— Walt Falconer

Track listing

All tracks composed by Bill Withers; except where indicated.

  1. “Harlem” – 3:23
  2. “Ain’t No Sunshine” – 2:04
  3. “Grandma’s Hands” – 2:00
  4. “Sweet Wanomi” – 2:34
  5. “Everybody’s Talkin'” (Fred Neil) – 3:26
  6. “Do It Good” – 2:53
  7. “Hope She’ll Be Happier” – 3:49
  8. “Let It Be” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) – 2:35
  9. “I’m Her Daddy” – 3:17
  10. “In My Heart” – 4:20
  11. “Moanin’ and Groanin'” – 2:59
  12. “Better Off Dead” – 2:16

 Personnel

  • Bill Withers – guitar, vocals
  • Stephen Stills – guitar
  • Jim Keltner – drums
  • Booker T. Jones – guitar, keyboards
  • Bobbye Hall Porter – percussion
  • Al Jackson, Jr. – drums

// ]]>

Posted by Larry Carta

1 Comment

  1. Mike (19 Feb 2012, 10:46)
    Reply

    Awesome backing band.

    You might want to check out a documentary made about Bill in the last year or two: Still Bill. You’ll see parallels with Neil Young in the ‘accept no bullshit’ category



Leave a Reply

Before you post, please prove you are sentient.

what is 4 + 6?