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.