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Saturday Deluxe / 4 April 2020

Farewell, Bill Withers

Sad news this week with the death of Bill Withers on Monday. He was a wonderful singer and songwriter and his 1981 ‘Greatest Hits’ album is up there with the very best ‘best ofs’ ever issued. It really is ten tracks of perfection.

Although he topped the Billboard Hot 100 in America in 1972 with ‘Lean On Me’, surprisingly, he only ever had one top ten single in the UK – ‘Lovely Day’. It was a hit twice, reaching number seven when first released in 1977 and then number four when remixed in 1988. By that point Withers had effectively retired, fed up with Columbia (who he’d signed with in 1975) refusing to release the music he presented to them, something that resulted in a frankly ridiculous seven year gap between ‘Bout Love in 1978 and the final album, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me.

On reflection, it seems a real shame that an artist of Bill Withers’ calibre was driven away; disillusioned from the industry, in his mid-forties. It was the 1980s, I guess, which were choppy waters for some artists to navigate and while label mate Leonard Cohen managed to embrace the sounds and styles of that decade and win over new fans with I’m Your Man (in 1988), the same didn’t happen with Withers who just wanted to write and sing songs his way (with Bill gone Columbia brought in Ben Liebrand to remix ‘Lovely Day’, which to be fair, worked from a commercial point of view).

Bill Withers / The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums box set
This Grammy-winning box set was released in 2012 and is now out of print

So yes, there really should be more of them, but the songs he gave us do endure. As a teenager, I remember putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. ‘Lovely Day’ was included on the Now That’s What I Call Music’s compilation The Summer Album (much played in my Dad’s car in the summer of 1986) and I then realised that this was the guy that wrote and sang the classics ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Lean On Me’. A decade or so later ‘Who Is he (And What Is He To You)?’ was used memorably in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

One imagines someone at the record label is already working on plans to bring new (or old) products to the marketplace, but in terms of what to buy, you can’t go wrong with the greatest hits pictured above. Collectors’ looking to dig much deeper should opt for Sony’s 2012 The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums 9CD box set. It’s pretty good and even won Best Historical Album Grammy in 2014. It includes the Live at Carnegie Hall album (also available as a stereo-only MoFi SACD). Sadly the box set is out of print, so you’ll have to look around.

Bill wrote a note for the booklet that came with that box set. At the end he says “I remember a lot of good times making this music and the good things that happened to me as a result. Mostly, I remember what I am remembered for, the songs.”

26 responses to Saturday Deluxe / 4 April 2020

  1. Pingback:Bill Withers / The Complete Sussex and Columbia albums box set | superdeluxeedition

  2. Magoo says:

    Great to hear some stories from Bills influence.
    Don’t bother with the best of, get the box when it gets a reissue.

    The man could write a song, Who is he (and what is he to you), Kissing my love and I hope she’ll be happier with him. Wow.

  3. Paul Roberts says:

    Hopefully, more people will now find the genius that is “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” now!

    • Steven Campbell says:

      Yep Paul Roberts, that’s my favourite track of Bill Withers. I discovered it as it was sampled by Fatboy Slim on Demons with Macy Gray. Then I went and bought live at Carnegie Hall which features said track.

  4. Ian Smith says:

    Lovely Day is one of my favourite all-time songs, I remember listening to it back on 1977 and falling in love with it, what a lovely timeless perfect song. Can’t believe the man isn’t more idolised than he is, some of his songs are up there with the Beatles. I was so sad to hear of his passing. Here’s hoping his music gets re-released by the label (that box should never be OOP) to be discovered by new fans.

  5. O(+> Peter B says:

    The 2CD compilation The Essential Bill Withers is fairly comprehensive.

  6. Javier says:

    Glad to read so many good memories of Bill Withers music. But sad that nobody has shared those memories about Adam Schlesinger’s passing. He was a fantastic songwriter and Fountains of Wayne a great band. I’ll miss everything he could have written.

  7. Eamonn says:

    Plan B
    Bill Withers was good to me
    Plan B
    Pretend I’m Bill and lean on me

  8. Luigi F says:

    One track by Mr. Withers that was only ever released on a Columbia 45 and an obscure UK CD is the sociopolitical “U.S.A.” – as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1981 – “I’m praying for you U.S.A….. taking all that guff from Iran”. Bill Withers made a big addition to the memories of my life – really sad he passed on.

  9. Tom says:

    Paul,I can only echo your first paragraph. He really was a wonderful singer/songwriter and his Greatest Hits album is indeed,one of the best ever. R.I.P. Bill,you are loved.

  10. Gerbrand says:

    Toward the end of “Lovely Day”, Withers holds a note for 18 seconds. This is believed to be the second-longest note in UK chart history; Morten Harket of A-ha’s 20-second note in “Summer Moved On” (2000) is the longest. Withers’ note is sustained in chest voice, whereas Harket utilizes the falsetto range.

    • Jules says:

      It’s not his only impressive vocal moment (from a technique point of view), “Ain’t No Sunshine” has a long passage where he sings “I know, I know, I know etc.” in one breath.

      Despite this, Bill Withers’ vocal delivery was so different from what a lot of people call “soul” these days. His singing was understated, nuanced and beautifully straightforward. Simple but true. RIP.

    • John McCann says:

      My old moog prodigy synth could hold a note for a lot longer than that.!

  11. Spiral Scar says:

    Thank you, Paul, for your thoughts on Bill Withers.
    When I was a child, his songs were all over the airwaves. “Lean On Me” is perhaps my most indelible musical memory from the summer of 72. Every time I hear it or think of it, it’s like the sun is shining. Some other songs trickled into my collection back in the 70’s when I got lucky at tag sales (who could be so foolish to get rid of a Bill Withers 45?) and a song might crop up on a K-tel album, like “Heartbreak Road” which sure sounds like a hit but barely charted. I found the first two albums (records) at a flea market around ’90. Thrilled at how good they were. His work was right up there with Al Green’s regarding consistency and quality. A couple of songs I can’t seem to play only one time is “I Don’t Want You On My Mind” and “Who Is He And What Is He To You?” I absolutely love the mood and groove of both of these somewhat dark songs.
    One of my favorites is one I didn’t even realize I had until maybe five years ago. Only issued in 1972 as the B-side (though the picture sleeve and time of release suggests strongly that it’s the A-side) of the single “Let Us Love” is a stark, emotive tune called “The Gift Of Giving.” The message is clear and the holidays are certainly part of the sentiment, but the song sounds like the “other side” of a December morning. It evokes grey skies, chilly temperatures and bare trees, and solitude and stillness. It has an utterly somber feel to it, as if Bill is alone with his guitar and his thoughts. There’s not a sleigh bell to be heard. The song is not on any album and isn’t even on the box set. I did find it on a CD collection eventually (which isn’t here so I can’t recall its name.) The song’s celebration of friendship seems at odds with the music but it did get through. It was the first song I played yesterday when I heard the news that Bill Withers had died.
    On a totally different note, If you can track down (or youtube) his song “USA” give it a listen. It was a single only in 1981 and the only thing he put out during those wilderness years aside from the vocal for “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. (Which he co-wrote and had a huge hit with it on Elektra. Take that, Columbia!) It barely touched the R&B charts and that was it. It’s not on the box either (or any CD as far as I know) but it should have been. You can tell a lot about Bill by this unusual sounding song, as it’s got plenty of his attitude.
    A great talent and a great person. I’m happy to see him being remembered on SDE

    • Robert Laversuch says:

      Hi the USA song is on a CD called Body of Soul as well as a 2 CD set from the Netherlands called Ultimate Collection

  12. SimonP says:

    So, what is the best Bill Withers collection still available to buy?

  13. Darrenlinklater says:

    The passing of a truly wonderful singer songwriter, who could have given so much more if it wasn’t for the big machine which is the music industry turning its back on him.
    I had the pleasure of seeing Bill on his last UK tour at City Hall, Newcastle. I think it was just after the Lovely Day remix was a hit. The crowd was very sparse and he joked about it asking everyone in the balcony to come down to the front of the stalls.
    He give a wonderful performance and I am so pleased to have been there.
    Will be giving my box set of his albums a run out this week.

  14. SimonH says:

    That remix, truly horrible stuff!

    • Patrick says:

      Ben Liebrand:

      Bill Withers 1938-2020

      Today I woke up to the sad news of the passing of Bill Withers.

      One Friday morning In 1988 I decided to do a minimix of ‘Lovely Day’. It is incredible how one thing leads to another, resulting in a renewed hit for Bill in 1988, him performing again at Top of the Pops in UK, a follow up with remixes of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and also ‘Harlem’, and a best of album in 1989.
      All very nice indeed, but the most beautiful thing of it all was receiving a call from Bill himself, thanking me for seeing his children dance to their dad being in the spotlight again.

      Thank you Bill, Your music touches us on the highs and lows of our emotions, you will be missed whenever we lose someone that meant that Sunshine to us, and remembered for each time we experience a Lovely Day.

  15. Sean Gregory says:

    Withers has an out-sized presence in our house. My own children were stunned to hear that all those songs they loved were done in a two year period and not a 20-year career.

    Once, on our way home from school, my son and I pulled into the garage with “Hope She’ll be Happier With Him” on the CD. I turned off the car but let the music play.

    We just sat there for another minute not moving. “Maybe the lateness of the hour, makes me feel bluer than I am”

    “Damn” said my teenage son.

  16. Ben Williams says:

    I agree that his hits collection is amongst the best best-of’s out there – if anyone reading hasn’t got it, it’s definitely worth seeking out on whatever format you prefer. RIP Bill.

  17. chris bond says:

    Live at Carnegie Hall is a must – legend

  18. DaveM says:

    @Robert, agree perfect review.
    The box set is really worth getting if you can get hold of one, but as Paul states, that original Greatest Hits is fantastic and as I mentioned playing it last night on the Self Isolation playlist #3, if you can get the Columbia Gold disc on CD, it’ll be one of the best sounding CDs in your collection.
    What an amazing person Bill Withers was and his influence lives on in the music of Michael Kiwanuku.

  19. Silica says:

    Can only agree, Bill Withers Greatest Hits is so concise and makes great songwriting seem so easy. Very under rated and about time we looked back at his genius songwriting. He was very much his own man and like Nick Drake for example was very at odds with touring and the business side of music. He really let his wonderful song craft tell you all you needed to know. Plus he had a great voice, the icing on the cake. Rest well Bill!

  20. Robert Laversuch says:

    Perfect review – thank you for that. Bought the box set on the strength of the augmented best of containing 18 tracks from the early nineties. Sublime albums with tons to discover. Even still – having done Ain’t no Sunshine, Lean on Me, Grandma’s Hands and Lovely Day alone makes the man a genius for me. You did well R.I.P.

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