Full disclosure: there was another album we originally intended to cover in this episode of A Scene In Retrospect. However, when we heard news of Bill Withers passing away on March 30, there was an immediate agreement between all of us that we had to do something to show some decorum and pay our respects to this legendary soul musician; covering his 1971 début album Just As I Am in this feature, in the month it was released almost 50 years ago no less, seemed to be the most natural way to do so. Without further ado, I’d like to turn the floor over to my dear friends and colleagues Inter, David, Jake, and Faisal, who will share their thoughts on Just As I Am with you below.
Rest easy, Mr. Withers. Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone.
I’ve been given the opportunity to share some words about the late Bill Withers’ momentous debut album Just As I Am, a position I value dearly in large part owing to the fact that Mr. Withers was an icon, loved by many over decades, and whose music touched the lives of more people than I can likely guess.
Until sitting down and experiencing this album, I hadn’t been especially familiar with Mr. Withers’ work. There were, of course, a number of his hits that I’d heard throughout my life, but it would be dishonest of me to say that I was deeply acquainted with his output. Though I regret having never listened to this piece of music history until today, I’m grateful that I did, because Just As I Am was a beautiful celebration of life I wasn’t quite expecting.
I’d wager, like many others, that “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me” are the songs first evoked when one thinks of Bill Withers. I expected the album as a whole to be similar in tone, and was completely taken aback when the strums that begin the opening track “Harlem” gave way to a seriously upbeat, string-led stomp. The mix of instruments was familiar, but the execution was far more fun than I imagined I’d be hearing on this record. This sense of fun was only exacerbated by the laid-back vocal delivery, especially striking for how much power was delivered without rowdiness or vocal projection. Withers was truly a unique voice in music, and “Harlem” opened my eyes to another dimension to his identity that wasn’t showcased to me in his bigger singles: less mournful, a dash bluesier, and altogether larger than life.
As a result of my 90s upbringing, many of my formative musical reference points are different from those who were raised during the era Mr. Withers rose to prominence, and it was fun discovering how the music I was hearing for the first time on Just As I Am had made such a deep mark on the artists that were contemporary when I was growing up. “Harlem” had me reminiscing about Sheryl Crow’s early 90s output, and the reflective keys on “Grandma’s Hands” conjured up shades of Morcheeba’s “The Sea”. Moreover, I learned that it was sampled in Blackstreet’s well-known hit “No Diggity”. The soaring, assuring tones of “Sweet Wanomi” are startlingly similar to Robbie Williams‘ hit “Something Beautiful”; his more soulful dalliances seem quite indebted to Bill Withers in general.
Amidst all these similarities is the realization that Withers’s impact was far-reaching and transcended genre. With his stripped-down and unique approach to soul and blues and his captivating vocal qualities, he seamlessly demonstrated music’s potential to draw enormous power from calm. The tracks on Just As I Am are gentle and effortless expressions of joy, fun, and comfort – at all times occupied by the enormity of Bill Withers’ charisma. If, like me, you’d never thought to give this album a complete listen before, then allow me to encourage you to do so: regardless of your musical preferences, I suspect you’ll find it difficult not to find much to appreciate on this iconic debut.
The now-classic era of 1970’s r’n’b has a variety of superstars, and in my personal opinion, Bill Withers sits atop that list without question. His melding of folk, soul, and a few dashes of funk make his approach and delivery memorable. On his debut, Just As I Am, Withers manages to corral all of his influences into a record that is a series of small stories that often are contrasting in how those stories are told. Everyone knows his hit “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and for good reason – that song just never gets old and is a song that will be covered until humanity fades from this planet. The gorgeous string arrangements, on-point rhythm section, and his voice at its most soulful. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is obviously a metaphorical powerhouse that’s simple but powerful. What never ceases to amaze me, however, is just how apt he was in completely grounding his songwriting approach into something more tangible. “Grandma’s Hands” is a perfect example of this.
The recollections of Withers’ grandmother are concrete, and this song lists out very specific things that are tied to his memory of her and even within these examples there are more contrasts. From handing out candy and warnings, correction and condolences, all of these memories are centered around genuine love for him and those around him. It’s such a warm track that further shows his ability to deliver grand metaphors as well as shoe leather minutia.
The flexibility to sincerely deliver on disparate approaches like this really speak to his dedication to delivering an emotional impact. He even did so with his soulful covers of “Let It Be” and “Everybody’s Talkin’” – he was clearly a master of artistic empathy and could find the emotional root of whatever story he was telling.
As is the case with many blues-based genres, the stories told on Just As I Am are more often than not leaning into the melancholy side of things, if not just downright sad. “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and “I’m Her Daddy” are two masterclasses in punching my living guts out. The simple, soulful cries of a man powerless to affect the things that mean the most to him has a way to my heart. Speaking of hearts, “In My Heart” is one of the most gorgeous tracks that sadly doesn’t seem to get as much attention as many of the other tracks here. With just an acoustic guitar, some minor scales, and a touch of reverb, it’s an outlier on the record and also the longest track at just over four minutes. This song showcases another aspect of Withers’ skill set: he was a damn powerful vocalist. Sure, his baritone was legendary, but when he belts it out on this one and includes little trills and runs, it showcases another facet of his stellar voice.
Just As I Am kicked off an impressive career for Withers, and was the start of many great things. But even with that in mind, this is an album that is fantastic even without that context. The ability to interpret so many emotional contexts and authentically deliver stories in a variety of ways is what stands out so dramatically for me.
‘If you read the album cover by now, you know that my name is what my name is. When I came in here to try and do this, something I’ve never done before, Mr. Jones, Booker T., said to me, ‘don’t worry about it, just do what you do and do it good’’
The same album cover referenced by Bill Withers’ spoken word interlude in “Do It Good” shows him, old-fashioned metal lunchbox in hand, at his factory job in Burbank, California. By day, he made airplane toilets for Boeing; by night, he was rushing to the studio with Sussex Records to track songs that would become his debut, Just As I Am.
Bill was 32 when this album came out. 32. No spring chicken by budding musician standards, but far from retired either. Prior, he had had many blue-collar jobs and been enlisted in the Navy for nine years. I say all of this not to biographize or even eulogize him, but to get across the fact that Bill was about as much of an everyman as you could get. A man with a dream. A man with a talent.
I’m not well-versed in soul myself, but that fact alone should speak to Bill’s immense presence in my own life. I know the greats – Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Marvin Gaye – the people you think of when you hear the word ‘soul.’ Still, Bill shines the brightest among them to me, mostly due to his astonishingly down-to-earth approach to music. You didn’t have to listen long to find the honest, vulnerable man in him – just as he was.
“Grandma’s Hands” is a great example. An ode to Lula, Bill’s maternal grandmother, it’s a genuinely sweet and succinct dedication to her, the pious and caring way she nurtured and lived, always there to lend a helping hand. Makes me think of my own long gone grandmother. Or how “I’m Her Daddy” tells the story of an estranged father reaching out to the mother of his child for the first time since birth, and how Bill’s voice can convey so much emotion through subtle inflection and projection changes.
Throughout these songs and others, the backing music ranges from understated and accentuating to gently groovy. Songs like “Harlem”, “Do It Good”, and “Everybody’s Talkin’” are the most consistent with the latter tone, being more than danceable. The base of all the instrumentation is profoundly simple – guitar, bass, and drums – but your ear is likely to perk up with the organs, strings, and foot stomping that show up here and there. There’s flavor at every turn of Just As I Am, but nothing ever overshadows Bill’s heartfelt singing and storytelling.
Bill just seems like the kind of guy you meet at a get-together with mixed company, and you end up talking to him the most because of all the great stories he has. A proverbial old soul, he comes off as someone wise beyond his years, living a wonderfully storied life even by the time he hit his 30s, but wise enough to know that plenty more was to come and much more to learn. He even made “Let It Be” tolerable to listen to by giving it a more sunny disposition and not being The Beatles. Tough feat.
All of this just to say what many of you already know: Bill Withers was something else. Just As I Am was such a fitting introduction to him as a person and artist. It showed his star potential with megahit “Ain’t No Sunshine”, a wholesome family man (“Grandma’s Hands”, “I’m Her Daddy”), and the tragedies that can beset anyone (“Hope She’ll Be Happier”, “Better Off Dead”). His story is empowering, and it goes to show that perhaps you can do whatever you want in life. If you wanna kiss a funky beagle, or hitch a ride upon an eagle, even read a catalog from Spiegel, go on and do it, but do it good. Do it like Bill.
Rest in power.
How to approach writing about such a legendary album? I think just plain honesty is the best way, so I’ll try my best. Until 6-7 years ago, I only knew that Bill Withers was the guy behind “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, two very good, but quite overplayed songs. I wasn’t into soul music at all, so I never really cared to deal with him as an artist more than this basic knowledge. I was okay with that, and let it be.
The drummer of my old band had a background in ska and several Southern American/Spanish percussion rhythms. Other than that, he was a huge admirer of Al Jackson Jr., who played famously drums on Just As I Am. His simple, yet incredibly ‘in-the-pocket’ playing gives the album it’s steady backbone. Through this perspective, I’ve started to delve further into soul and r’n’b, and quickly developed a huge love for Withers’ music, and especially Just As I Am as an album.
I don’t listen to this album every day, nor every week. Not even every month. But every now and then, I put it on, and I sit outside, take a walk, or just chill at home while focusing on this subtle masterpiece of understatement, those smooth and warm songs between protest, gospel, and rhythm’n’blues, carried by tons of soul and charisma. Bill Withers doesn’t give you the feeling that he wants the listener to hear his mourning or longing. He just tells you: ‘It’s alright pal. I was there too.‘. You meet him on equal footing, and just try to no smile absently and feel warm. Irresistible.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Just As I Am? Are you a fan of Bill Withers, and if so, what’s your favorite album of his? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!