Bill Withers - The Essential Bill Withers

Bill Withers
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Back in the early 1980s when I was a teenager, there was this teen drama TV program that came on the Chicago PBS affiliate. I can’t remember the show’s name (and I searched), but I do remember the theme song – Bill Withers’ “The Best You Can.”

The show’s producers didn’t use Withers’ original, opting to go with a duet featuring male and female vocalists, so I didn’t connect the song to Withers at the time. However, the song’s hook, “the most you can ever do is the best that you can,” became a catch phrase of mine, especially after my children became high school and college students.

Back in the early 1980s when I was a teenager, there was this teen drama TV program that came on the Chicago PBS affiliate. I can’t remember the show’s name (and I searched), but I do remember the theme song – Bill Withers’ “The Best You Can.”

The show’s producers didn’t use Withers’ original, opting to go with a duet featuring male and female vocalists, so I didn’t connect the song to Withers at the time. However, the song’s hook, “the most you can ever do is the best that you can,” became a catch phrase of mine, especially after my children became high school and college students.

So hearing the tune on the compilation The Essential Bill Withers brought back some memories. Hearing that song also got me thinking about Withers as a songwriter. Withers is a great lyricist, so it’s not surprising that other artists cover his songs. Some of those covers come instantly to mind – the Club Nouveau cover of “Lean on Me” or Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover of “Who Is He and What Is He to You.” Jon Lucien and Nancy Wilson remade “Hello Like Before,” and several artists have covered “Grandma’s Hands,” including Gil-Scot Heron. John Legend and The Roots did a searing live version of the anti-war anthem “I Can’t Write Left Handed.

I’ve encountered Withers while reviewing other artists for SoulTracks. Nicole Henry included a live version on “Use Me” on her live album So Good So Right, and John Stoddard remade “Lovely Day” for his 2010 Faith Hope Love. I know that at least 10 of the 33 songs on The Essential Bill Withers have been covered or sampled, and all of that attests to his greatness.

The covers are important because it might be hard for younger listeners to understand the imprint that Withers had on the music scene during the height of the soul era in the 1970s. One reason for the unfamiliarity is that Withers has not recorded since the mid 1980s - opting to focus on his family. Additionally, Withers’ brand of intimate, acoustic soul is not what the market is looking for – particularly among male singers. Musicians, however, have always had a deep appreciation for Withers’ lyricism and his soulful vocals. His  influence can be heard in the best of this generation’s vocalist such as Gregory Porter, who brings Withers’ sense and sensibility to his original songs such as “Real Good Hands” and “Hey Laura.”

All of Withers’ oft-covered hits are here on Essential, and the payoff in hearing Withers wail “I know” 31 times on “Ain’t No Sunshine” (I counted each and every one) is always big.  It may be more rewarding to hear some of Wither’s hidden gems such as “Better Off Dead,” a song where Withers combines that his version of smooth 1970s era funk with the country storytelling he likely heard growing up in West Virginia to tell a tale of a man who commits suicide after his woman leaves him.

“My Imagination” is a sweet ballad that showcases Withers at his absolute best. The track is a love letter to his wife and expresses the wonder of a man who gets to live and love the realization his sincerest dream. “When you appeared in my imagination/I had no idea that you’d ever be real/Now you’re my life/not just some fascination/I love you now that you’re real.

The Essential Bill Withers provides music fans with an opportunity to hear the great man sing. The experience will be a revelation for some, a rediscovery for others and a pleasure for all. Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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