Quick: Name the best male soul singers of all time.
These virtuosos come to mind immediately: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Donnie Hathaway, and other names. Although all these artists exemplify the best of soul music, one name appears less frequently and deserves more attention: Bill Withers.
Although Withers had a string of hits in the 70s and made a comeback in the early 80s with “Just the Two of Us,” a duet with Grover Washington, Jr., only three of his songs still receive frequent airplay: the latter song, “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Use Me.” Of course these songs ably withstand the test of time; much of his best material resides in album cuts and less-frequently played singles. His deceptively laid-back delivery allows the listener to truly absorb the lyrics. In fact, songs such as “Grandma’s Hands,” a touching tribute to his grandmother, show his skills as a storyteller and vivid descriptor of characters. Nowhere is his narrative prowess and powerful vocal style more evident than on 1973’s Bill Withers: Live at Carnegie Hall.
Recorded on a rainy night in 1972, the concert features Withers along with James Gadson (drums), Bernoce Blackmon (guitar), Ray Jackson (keyboards), and Melvin Dunlap Bill (bass). The band opens with a slower version of “Use Me” which prominently features Withers’ raspy, seductive voice, turning it into an almost nine-minute jam. The audience claps along and becomes so entranced by the soulful spirit that Withers sings another reprise after finishing the song. “Ain’t No Sunshine” gains a jazzy feel through some piano and a faster beat. As the tempo increases, his bluesy vocals underscore the pain of the ballad.
The masterpiece of the album occurs when Withers introduces “Grandma’s Hands” by reminiscing about his grandmother playing tambourine in the church. Listening to him describe the dancing and preaching at a service, his grandmother banging on the tambourine in pure joy, will charm you as much as the audience. He then launches into an emotional version of the song which, in my opinion, bests the original studio recording. After hearing this version, you will listen to the song with an entirely new — and deeper — perspective.
Songs like “Let Me into Your Life” illustrate how he could write love songs beyond the usual “ooh baby please” cliché; “I wasn’t even there when he hurt you,” Withers gently pleads, “so why should I have to pay? I want to share your tomorrows.” Accompanied by piano and bass, he demonstrates that the best ballads can be straightforward, realistic, and not hitting audiences over the head with graphic sexuality.
His material, however, addresses more than just love affairs. “Better Off Dead,” a shocking narrative from a suicidal man’s point of view, chronicles a man’s pain from ruined love, drinking, and poverty. With this song, Withers pays tribute to traditional blues-style singing, but manages to address the inner-city frustration of the 70s (reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land”).
Typical of his narrative songwriting style, the anti-war song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” tells the story of a young man returning from Vietnam, one arm blown off. From this man’s perspective, Withers describes his isolation from the “real world.” “Boot camp we had classes / You know we talked about fighting, fighting every day / And looking through rosy, rosy colored glasses / I must admit it seemed exciting in a way.” His naiveté wears off after returning home, stating that “I ain’t gonna live to get much older.”
The final song, “Harlem/Cold Baloney,” paints a musical picture of a typical Saturday in Harlem, juxtaposing people going out to parties with others going to church. By the end Williams engages the audience in a spirited sing-along, transforming the concert into a revival meeting. But Withers’ vivid narration grips the listener and never lets go.
Bill Withers: Live at Carnegie Hall is not only a pleasurable listening experience, but also functions as a master class in performing and songwriting. Pick up the 2008 reissue and experience a criminally underrated classic. For more information, visit Bill Withers’ official site.