Released: May 1972
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified Gold: 9/7/72
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.
Booker T. Jones helped pluck Withers out of anonymity, producing the singer's 1971 debut, Just As I Am, which included "Grandma's Hands" and "Ain't No Sunshine"; the latter became a Top Five hit. But when Jones wasn't available for the follow-up next year, Withers went into the studio with members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, with whom he'd been touring, and together they made the even finer and funkier Still Bill. Fueled by a pimp-strut organ riff, "Use Me" contains the best of Withers: It's both deeply soulful and catchy as hell. "Lean on Me" is a classic singalong -- but not just because of the arm-swaying chorus; Withers sets up the anthem with a heartfelt, gritty vocal performance. "Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?" is one of the coolest expressions of jealously you'll ever hear, which doesn't make the song any less painful. Withers hasn't made a new album in twenty years, but Still Bill is still a stone-soul masterpiece. * * * * *
- David Wild, Rolling Stone, 5/5/05.
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.
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