Released: May 1972
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified Gold: 9/7/72
Bill Withers has a rough, unexceptional sort of voice and he sings like a truckdriver, banging out the hot numbers with a resonant holler or treating ballads with a warm, conversational ease. He has no time for pretty effects and this simple, straightforward approach -- reflected in his lyrics as well as his singing -- is clearly his most attractive quality. With no pretense to being "down to earth," he is just that -- a rarity on a scene where flashy arrogance is still the popular pose. Withers' first album, Just As I Am, established him as a voice and as a songwriter, primarily with the touching "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands." But while it had a solidarity and realness and a sprinkling of star credits (producer Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn, Chris Ethridge, Steven Stills), the album lacked a certain confidence and verve. The latest effort, Still Bill, has those missing qualities in abundance -- just see what a little success can do.
This time Withers took on his own production, working with a core group of four musicians. Withers on acoustic guitar remains in the front of most arrangements and, though it is largely uninventive strumming, his unpolished work, like his voice is turned to his advantage and offset nicely by the punch of the backing instruments. On the final cut, "Take It All In And Check It All Out," for instance, the persistence of Bill's strumming which opens up the song is pierced and threaded by the sly, needling comments of Benorce Blackmon on wah wah guitar. Elsewhere, the strings may come in kind of thick and syrupy but, oddly enough do little to mar the determinedly unfussy surface of the album.
Where some of the songs seemed to languish, unrealized, on Just As I Am, the material here is so buoyed up by the production that even minor pieces achieve a satisfying fullness. Among the most successful cuts: "Use Me," rumbling along on a tough electric piano pattern (Ray Jackson feeling like Stevie Wonder) and fine, tight percussion (James Gadson), sets Withers shouting, "I want to spread the news/ if it feels this good getting used/ you just keep on using me--/ until you use me up." "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?" has an equally insinuating sound, more guitar-based this time (and the strings could easily have been dispensed with). The only lyric here not Withers' own, it's a neat, witty examination of jealousy that Bill carries with just the right tone of suspicious accusation -- "You tell me men don't have much intuition/ Is that what you really think or are you wishin'?"
On the whole, it's a tougher, more relaxed, more assured album than Withers' first effort. Nothing is thrown away, everything works with an unexpected clarity and strength. In the man's own words, you ought to take it all in and check it out.
- Vince Alette, Rolling Stone, 6/8/72.
Bill Withers has a modest talent for writing some rather touching songs ("Let Me in Your Life," "Lean on Me") and a strong performing style that communicates through emotional warmth rather than pyrotechnics. By the second side of this disc, however, it begins to wear thin, and by the end monotony has thoroughly set in.
This is an album to be listened to one track at a time.
- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 12/72.
This entry justifies what 99 percent of all music critics said of Bill Withers first LP and concert appearances in that he is not among the soon-forgotten rookies in today's music. "Lean on Me" which is currently moving up the single chart is joined by "Who is He (And What Is He to You)," "Kissing My Love" and "Lonely Town, Lonely Street." Plenty of sunshine here.
- Billboard, 1972.
Withers has created the most credible persona of any of the upwardly mobile soul singers, avoiding Marvin Gaye's occasional vapidity, Donny Hathaway's overstatement, and Curtis Mayfield's racial salesmanship. He sounds straight, strong, compassionate. And don't be fooled by "Lean on Me" -- he's also plenty raunchy and he can rock dead out. The self-production here is adamantly spare, with Ray Jackson furnishing the hook of the year on "Use Me," one of the few knowledgeable songs about sex our supposedly sexy music has ever produced. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Somehow, the man who brought us "Lean on Me," "Use Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" isn't a universally revered musical figure. But Bill Withers is a giant, whether or not the rest of us remember. During a remarkable run that stretches roughly the same period as Stevie Wonder's legendary purple path, Withers was making deep, lived-in music that brought the best of Seventies soul together with the intimate power of that era's singer-songwriter movement. Withers -- who grew up in a West Virginia coal-mining town and was making airline toilets for Boeing before he hit it big -- did it all with a no-nonsense directness that proudly reflected his working-class roots.
- David Wild, Rolling Stone, 5/5/05.
From the moment he appeared in 1971, Bill Withers ran counter to the prevailing wisdom of the record industry. As an African American singer, he understood soul. But he specialized in thoughtful, gentle music -- his songs had the earthbound wisdom of country or folk in them, and a grown-up's perspective on life's challenges.
This wasn't an easy sell. And Withers, who'd waited more than a decade for his chance to record, did not change to suit the industry. Born and raised in Slab Fork, West Virginia, the youngest in a family of six kids, Withers worked as a milkman and on an auto assembly line during his twenties, singing and writing songs in his spare time. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he found work installing bathrooms on Boeing aircraft. He saved money to make tapes of his songs, and at first encountered total rejection, as he recalled in an interview in Blues and Soul magazine: "I had tapes all over the place but nothing happened."
Clarence Avant, the president of Sussex Records, heard Withers in 1970 and reacted differently. He paired the singer and guitarist with the Memphis rhythm section led by keyboardist and producer Booker T. Jones (plus guitarist Stephen Stills, who offset Withers's acoustic strumming with piercing leads), and encouraged him to do his own material. The result, Just As I Am, yielded a strong single ("Ain't No Sunshine") and a wise song that should have become a standard, "Grandma's Hands."
Withers followed that with Still Bill, one of the most eloquent records ever filed under "Rhythm and Blues." These are shades-of-gray stories, full of a mature understanding of human nature: "Use Me" describes a lover's total, damaging devotion; "Lean on Me" uses hymnlike chords as a backdrop for an open-hearted offering of support; "Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?" shows what happens when obsession devolves into paranoid suspicion. Even when reflecting on weighty matters, Withers cultivates a mood of unflappable calm, making everything sound like a lazy summer evening on the front porch.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
"Too many black artists get conned into doing so-called standards," Bill Withers said in 1972. "Songs by white writers who make the big money." On his second album, Withers wrote his own standards -- the scorching "Use Me" and the beloved friendship anthem "Lean on Me."
Still Bill was chosen as the 333rd greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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