If the extent of your acquaintance with legendary soul singer Bill Withers is “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Legacy’s double disc compendium of his work, The Essential Bill Withers, will be a revelation. Even those familiar with the singer-songwriter’s music may find a welcome surprise or two in the collection. Withers’ writes from the heart and even his deep cuts resonate.
“Basically,” he points out in the liner notes, “you write the way you are: what you are thinking.” Songwriting is less an intellectual process than it is a mystical act. “I don’t want to know where the words come from. Knowing that would take magic away.” At his best, his music is magic and The Essential Bill Withers is the man at his best.
Tipping the scales at 34 songs, this heavyweight album culls an assortment of gems from all eight of his albums, from his 1971 debut release Just As I Am through the 1985 Watching You Watching Me and his untimely retirement. It also includes some singles and off-label tracks as well, including his 1980 collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr., “Just the Two of Us,” no doubt his biggest hit since “Lean On Me.” That he was still producing this kind of music in the ’80s makes his decision to stop recording, probably as a result of a dispute with the record company, that much more depressing.
His songs are sometimes highly personal, whether he seems to be looking back on his West Virginia boyhood in “Grandma’s Hands,” or looking for love in the lyrical “Let Me in Your Life.” He can create a persona to voice his concerns with greater social issues as he does with the alcoholic speaker in the grimly tragic “Better Off Dead,” or the disabled veteran in “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” But of course it is love in all its forms (especially unrequited, the theme of all the great soulful blues) that is his most common theme.
Some of the more interesting tracks on the album include “Harlem,” the underrated song that was the unsuccessful A-side of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “My Imagination,” from the Naked & Warm album (which he recorded with piano, harp and guitar), is a fine example of the singer in stripped-down mode. On the other hand, “Soul Shadows,” which he recorded with The Crusaders in 1980, shows him working with a swinging ensemble in a tribute to some of the giants of jazz. Then of course there are the other Withers classics, “Use Me” and “Lovely Day.”
Withers has a rich baritone. He sings with sweet grit that is completely honest. Listen even to a lesser-known jewel like “Railroad Man” which closes the first disc. Once you hear him you can’t forget him.