"What does it feel like to lead a normal working man's life and suddenly find yourself one of the biggest names in show business?"
Chicago radio personality Joe Johnson posed that question in the liner notes for the reissue of Bill Withers' 1974 album +'Justments, and it's a great question to ponder. Withers was born in the tiny coal mining town of Slab Fork, W.V., spent most of his 20s serving in the Navy and was working on a manufacturing line in 1971 when his demos and local nightclub performances earned him a recording contract. He was 32 years old—well past the age at which most artists make their debuts.
His impact was immediate—three of his first five singles reached the Top Three—and it ended almost as abruptly as it had begun, when he walked away from the music business in 1985, after eight studio albums and one live record. Fame was something Withers could take or leave, and he's proven that point by virtue of the fact that he disappeared and stayed gone for years, emerging only when prodded by documentarians (for the film Still Bill), tribute concerts or, in 2015, his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Here are 10 of Bill Withers' finest songs, prime examples of the rich legacy of his music.
"Harlem/Cold Baloney (Live)"From: 'Live at Carnegie Hall' (1973)
The first song on Withers' first album, "Harlem" became a fitting show-closer in his live performances, and, subsequently, on his live album. He rides the gradually ascending melody and slow-burning groove in his telling of everyday life in a poor neighborhood—in cinematic terms, it's a panoramic shot that eventually zooms in on one family's struggle as the song segues into "Cold Baloney." "I'm home all by myself," he sings, "Just five years old and sho' is cold / Mama cookin' steak for someone else." Withers makes their tale sound weary and heroic simultaneously, and the crowd claps along virtually the entire time.
"My Imagination"From: 'Naked & Warm' (1976)
Withers' albums grew spottier as the '70s wore on, but there were always at least a couple of "wow" moments on each. Naked & Warm closes on this beautiful paean to domesticity with a woman who was in his dreams before she was in his life, with Withers' voice sliding around the melody and Larry Nash's electric piano providing supple backing. It's a simple song made extraordinary by Withers' and Nash's performances.
"Stories"From: '+'Justments' (1974)
"Young and old, we all have stories / That we all must try to sell," Withers notes, and with that he beckons the stories and their tellers to come to him—he wants to hear them; wants to revel in and learn from them. Perhaps these are muses he yearns to engage to write stories of his own—the songs that give voice to the feelings of others, or that comfort them in tough times. It's a beautiful sentiment, regarding these inspirations as counterparts in conversation, and he renders it carefully, as though the whole thing might disappear if he doesn't.
"Hope She'll Be Happier"From: 'Just As I Am' (1971)
It's late at night, and the sadness is overwhelming. There's proof of it everywhere—the weariness in his head, the emptiness in his heart, the absence of her warm body in bed next to him. "Maybe the lateness of the hour," Withers sings, "Makes me feel bluer than I am." It's a nice try, but there's no blaming the darkness for this, and as he unwinds completely into his sorrow, a kind thought for her comes over him—perhaps at least one of them can be happy.
"Lovely Day"From: 'Menagerie' (1977)
It's easier to greet the day when you wake up next to the one you love, even if trouble wears you down or the prospect of another workday slog might otherwise make rising and shining nearly impossible. It's a simple sentiment, made resonant by that amazing sustained note Withers hits in the choruses—the "day" that seems to go on forever—and the palpable happiness in his voice as he sings the verses. It's one of his finest moments, and one of the last flat-out classics he would record.
"Grandma's Hands"From: 'Just as I Am' (1971)
A scant two minutes in length, "Grandma's Hands" nevertheless manages to encompass the entirety of a relationship between a boy and his mother's mother, of her strength and wisdom, her faith and love. It's an intense depiction, the intensity largely due to the quiet brooding of the instrumentation, contributed by Booker T. and the MGs (with the part of Steve Cropper played by Stephen Stills)
"Just the Two of Us" (with Grover Washington, Jr.)From: Grover Washington, Jr.'s 'Winelight' (1980)
There are few songs that epitomize "quiet storm" R&B quite like this one, from the shimmery keyboards and slinky bass to Withers' oh-so-smooth vocal. Washington's sax solo is a brilliant play off the song's melody, and it slides into the glorious end of the song, when Withers repeats the refrain "Just the two of us" in high and low registers, just to prove he can.
"Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?"From: 'Still Bill' (1972)
A chance encounter with his woman's lover who "tried to stare [him] down" leads to a frosty confrontation and an even colder question, cold enough to make one forget about the tame "dadgummit" that shows his exasperation. "You're too much for one man / But not enough for two," he tells her, knowing the math doesn't add up, and that in all likelihood, he will be left out of the equation.
"Lean on Me"From: 'Still Bill' (1972)
An anthem that speaks to the power of community, "Lean on Me" has been employed innumerable times, to bring disparate people together, or to join opposing forces into a single source of energy. It's there at rallies and charity events, in films and on television, performed by bands and choirs and solo performers alike. Few versions can approach Withers' original, from its comforting verses to the mighty chorus, to the "Call me" refrain that closes the song—the way he takes you from a sit-down conversation clear up to the clouds, before setting you back down to earth. Many have sung it; only one has done it like that.
"Ain't No Sunshine"From: 'Just as I Am' (1971)
"Ain't No Sunshine" is yearning made audible, desire given voice and set to music. The woman's not around, and the center of the galaxy—that which provides light and warmth and seasons; that which helps keep him and us all alive—is likewise missing. There's not a thing he can do about it, either, he knows, he knows, he knows, he knows, he knows—on and on, ad infinitum, a loop of longing he feels and feels hard, and he can't help but let it out. There's something illicit involved ("Oughta leave the young thing alone"), but it doesn't matter. This was the first song many had heard from Bill Withers, and it left an indelible impression.