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Bill Withers' Legacy Is So Much Deeper Than The Hits We All Know

Bill Withers, photographed here in 2006, was an artist more concerned with writing stories about humanity's pain than landing a pop hit.
Bill Withers, photographed here in 2006, was an artist more concerned with writing stories about humanity's pain than landing a pop hit.

"And, I'll paint your pretty picture with a song" — Bill Withers

There's a song, buried on the second side of Making Music (1975), the first album Bill Withers made for Columbia after his previous label Sussex, founded by the Black Godfather Clarence Avant, had folded. "Paint Your Pretty Picture" is easy to overlook alongside some of the hits — modern standards, really — that Withers wrote and performed, like "Lean on Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Grandma's Hands" and "Lovely Day." Yet "Paint Your Pretty Picture," from its opening line, "I will lay around sometimes and show some sadness for people whom I've known that now are gone," said so much about an artist who was more concerned about telling the stories about the loves and losses that he witnessed in a world that needed hope, and as someone who understood humanity's pain.

Like "Paint Your Pretty Picture," it might have been easy to forget Bill Withers, who famously eschewed the spotlight, following the release of his final studio album in 1985. Withers, who died this week at the age of 81, came to prominence in what was one of the most historically significant eras of black music, particularly for male soul singers. Withers had neither the larger-than-life personas of Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes or the musical gravitas associated with Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. Withers lacked the mellifluous vocals of Al Green and Billy Paul, and though an alpha male, he possessed none of the sheer hypermasculine energy of Teddy Pendergrass. But damn if you didn't feel every word that he wrote, and every word that he sang.

Some of this had to do with the fact that Withers, when he went into the studio in 1971 to record his debut, Just as I Am, on the recommendation of Booker T. Jones of Stax fame, was a fully-formed 30-something man who had come up hard-scrabble in West Virginia. He had no interest in, or the time, to sing "silly love songs," to quote Paul and Linda McCartney. On that debut, Withers' music was raw and unadorned, as 10 of the album's 12 tracks were originals, including the driving, political anthem "Harlem," everybody's grandmother's anthem, "Grandma's Hands" and the song that helped make him a star, "Ain't No Sunshine."

Yet Withers established early on in his career that there would be no filler on his albums; he was going to use every bar and every groove of those albums to their fullest. As he told NPR in a 2015 interview, "I wasn't socialized as a musician. It wasn't the only way I knew how to live." "Hope that She'll be Happier" revealed what would become a common theme in his music, the reservation that love will always be lost, and there would always be a dark side that few wanted to acknowledge. That darkness comes ringing through on songs like "I'm Her Daddy" and the album closer "Better Off Dead" — "Now I must die by my own hand / 'Cause I'm not man enough to live alone" — which ends with a self-inflicted gunshot.

"I'm Her Daddy" and "Better Off Dead" were not the stuff of pop stardom, yet a year later, Bill Withers found himself on the top of the pop charts courtesy of the generation-defining "Lean on Me." His next single, "Use Me," peaked at No. 2 and featured an iconic drum break from James Gadson. Withers might have had two No. 1s that year if not for Michael Jackson's "Ben" (Jackson had covered "Ain't No Sunshine" on his debut solo album earlier in 1972) and Chuck Berry's "My-Ding-a-Ling." Both of Withers' hits were on the nearly perfect side-one of Still Bill, which also included the funk classic "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?," co-written with Stanley McKenny, more from the perspective of a stalker than a jealous lover. For years the song would be cited as a musical reference to Withers' volatile relationship with actress Denise Nicholas, which ended in divorce and at least one reported incident of domestic violence.

In a moment in which Withers was poised — along with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Carly Simon — to become a generationally transcendent pop star, Withers went with his heart and his desire to write and record great songs, whether they would be pop hits or not. +'Justments, Withers' last album for Sussex, was released in 1974 and spawned three singles, none of which charted higher than 50 on the pop chart. No doubt +'Justments was hampered by the financial struggles at Sussex, but he was also not interested in recording simple pop songs. A key, but underappreciated narrative of Bill Withers' career is not his chart-topping early hits — or his so-called comeback in the late 1970s with "Lovely Day" and few years later with Grover Washington on the Grammy winning "Just the Two of Us" — but the thoughtful, introspective and brilliant albums that he recorded in the interim, with little airplay or fanfare.

As Withers sings on "Stories" from +'Justments, "Young and old, we all have stories that we all must try to sell," and Withers chose to sell and tell the stories that mattered to him, whether they found public favor or not. Some of those stories were his own, like "Railroad Man," on which he was accompanied by José Feliciano, which shares tales of coming-of-age in West Virginia; "Can We Pretend," a soft parting ballad that was penned by Nicholas; and "Liza," a lullaby that Withers wrote for a niece which was reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's "Song for Bobby Smith," which was released the same year.

Like +'Justments, Withers' follow-up, Making Music, might not have produced any hits, and for the first time included several song collaborators, perhaps as a concession to his new label. Yet there are gems, like the album opener "I Wish You Well," which seemed his goodbye anthem to Nicholas — because love is always lost — and "I Love You Dawn," arguably Withers' most gorgeous ballad, if not the most gorgeous two-and-a-half minutes in all of soul music, which featured a cold ending that left listeners breathless. Never one for regrets, Withers closes Making Music with "Hello Before," which narrates a chance reunion that will remain a lost love in Withers world.

Though Withers wrote all of Naked & Warm (1976), it is the most un-Withers album of his catalog — slick, overproduced, impersonal — though the ambitious 10-minute long "City of the Angels" seemed to mirror both Withers' increasing disconnect with Los Angeles and his new label. Indeed, Withers' time with Columbia was marred by the label's unwillingness to allow Withers to record the music he wanted. While some of his peers like William Bell ("Tryin' to Love Two") and Johnnie Taylor ("Disco Lady") were finding new audiences by following trends, Withers largely refused. And yet there were still wonderful moments, like originals "My Imagination" (from Naked & Warm), and "I Want to Spend the Night" and "Tender Things," both from Menagerie (1977). Withers' last great hit as solo artist appeared on Menagerie, and though "Lovely Day" — written with Skip Scarborough, one of the great underrated songwriters from the era ("Can't Hide Love" and "Love Ballad") — is a great song, it wasn't necessarily a Bill Withers song; almost any major soul singer from the era could have sung that song and it would have been a hit.

Withers was beyond frustrated with his label when he recorded 'Bout Love (1979), all of whose tracks were co-written by Paul Smith. Unable to agree on songs for his follow-up, Withers sat out for nearly five years before delivering his last studio album, Watching You, Watching Me (1985), which ironically included songs that Columbia had rejected, likely because the label simply wanted to be done with its contractual obligation to Withers. By the time that Withers released the album, his relationship to the label, and indeed the music industry itself, was not unlike all the stories of lost love that he had been singing about for 15 years. It was a good album, pushing forward the smooth jazz style that "Just the Two of Us" help initiate, but it would be his last album.

In the 35 years prior to his death, Withers became a bit of a mythic figure. There were always artists whose work demanded comparison: Anthony Hamilton comes immediately to mind, as does John Legend, and most recently José James, who recorded a Withers tribute album. There's not an oldies radio station in the country that doesn't find multiple opportunities to play those Bill Withers hits, including "Lovely Day," which was featured in Roll Bounce. In recent years Withers' "Grandma's Hands" has been featured in films like The Best of Enemies and television series like Ballers and Atlanta. "Use Me" appears in the Oscar winning American Beauty,as well as Any Given Sunday and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. There are just so many examples how Hollywood has gone to Withers to evoke both a historical moment or emotional depth.

Hip-hop has also mined Withers' catalog, notably Kanye West, whose "Roses" is a riff on "Rosie," a song that was left off of Withers' Menagerie, and Dr. Dre, who sampled "Grandma's Hands" from Blackstreet's "No Diggity." And of course there are many covers of Withers' music, notably "Lean on Me," a pop hit for Club Nouveau in 1986, and "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?," which was covered by Gladys Knight and the Pips, Creative Source and Meshell Ndegeocello.

My most lasting memory of Withers' music is actually a memory of my father. It was a rainy summer afternoon in the mid-1970s, and I know it was a Sunday because my dad worked six days a week. As I sat on the living room floor, my dad sat in the dark on the couch — a glass of dark liquor nearby — and listened to Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall. The album was recorded in October of 1972, just after the release of Still Bill's second single, "Use Me," and released as a double album in the spring of 1973. I remember little about hearing the album that day, except Withers telling the audience how much percussionist Bobbye Hall reminded him of his grandmother.

Years later I would go back to that album, listening to Withers' brilliant anti-war anthem, "I Can't Write Left-handed"; "Let Me in Your Life," which Aretha Franklin covered later that year; and the closer, which combined Withers' own "Harlem" with the Isley Brothers' "Cold Bologna." I realized that Bill Withers wrote songs for people, often black folk, who weren't so enamored with transcending the pain in their lives as they were just finding a moment or two to live through the pain, like my father that day on the couch. Bill Withers music gave folk the license to own their pain, and thus own the joy that came with the dawn.

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and the forthcoming Black Ephemera: The Challenge and the Crisis of the Musical Archive.

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Mark Anthony Neal
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