Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Just As I Am’ by Bill Withers.
Record company executives are always on the hunt for hip, young artists to sign and exploit like a coalmine, so recording your debut album as a singer/songwriter at the age of 33 is a rarity. Recording said album with the most sought-after backing band on the planet, Booker T and the MG’s, is frankly stranger than fiction; the kind of thing even Hollywood would struggle to sell. But that is exactly what happened to Bill Withers in 1970 when he recorded his debut ‘Just As I Am’.
On Independence Day, 1938, the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia welcomed William Harrison Withers, Jr. into the world. The youngest of six siblings, Withers struggled with a stutter and was mocked and labelled handicapped as a result. To make matters worse young William’s father died when he was thirteen and he was forced to work odd jobs to help his mother and grandmother make ends meet. Perhaps in search of a father figure, Withers escaped the repressive structures of West Virginia at eighteen by enlisting in the Navy for nine years.
Los Angeles beckoned the discharged Withers and a career as an aircraft engineer unfurled before him. But a strong urge to write and record his own songs led Withers to pay for his own demo tapes, which eventually caught the attention of Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant. Bad practices would see Sussex fold several years later, but Avant’s decision to pair Withers with Booker T would have historical consequences as Booker T brought with him perhaps the finest backing band for hire in the universe; The MG’s and friends.
Some of the players who contributed to ‘Just As I Am’ included Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash fame on lead guitar. Jim Keltner – favoured drummer of all the solo Beatles except for Paul McCartney – appeared on albums by the likes of Bob Dylan and Steely Dan, even touring with Pink Floyd and eventually appearing on both Travelling Wilburys albums under the alias Buster Sidebury, a continuation of the Buster Bloodvessel joke started in The Beatles movie ‘Magical Mystery Tour’.
Keltner shared drumming duties with Stax Records’ house drummer Al “The Human Timekeeper” Jackson, who co-wrote amongst others Respect and Let’s Stay Together. Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) was a Stax Records stalwart appearing on records that included Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. Motown percussionist Bobbye Hall Porter was also drafted in. And of course the ringmaster himself, Booker T, added his innumerable guitar, keyboards and production skills to the mix.
In essence, the minds that created some of the finest records of that or any era before or since were at Withers’ disposal. Could Withers utilise them to reach his full potential? Booker T had some simple, but sage advice for the novice recording artist – “Do what you do and do it good” and do it good is exactly what he did.
Harlem introduces the sound and vision of Bill Withers’ reality to the world, charting the struggles of inner city life where the choice between paying the rent and paying to eat is the choice between paying to live and paying to die. Crooked landlords and religious delegations are lambasted but Withers is not looking for sympathy, instead searching for equality and pointing to the hope and community and fun that exists despite the poor living standards.
Do not hold any of Bill Withers’ signature songs against him. It’s not his fault that they are so good and thematically universal that every Tom, Dick and Harry that ever picked up a guitar has subjected his back-catalogue to constant sonic mauling. Ain’t No Sunshine is one such song, with over 250 official cover versions released. The original is the perfect rendering of a broken-hearted man. Withers’ lyrics are so simple, solemn and sincere that only the stony-hearted do not consider ‘what might have been’ when they hear it.
“Maybe the lateness of the hour/makes me seem bluer than I am/but in my heart there is a shower/I hope she’ll be happier with him” sings Withers as he examines the same themes of lost love on Hope She’ll Be Happier. Cover buffs should check out Cherry Ghost’s 2010 B-side version of the track.
Long before Dr. Dre and Blackstreet arsified its riff for 1996’s smash hit No Diggity, Grandma’s Hands was a mournful yet heart-warming ode to the woman who had such a profound effect on Withers’ life, and its longevity – like Ain’t No Sunshine – is assured.
Of course, in 1970 sampling was science fiction and with Nostradamus having inextricably failed to predict death by karaoke, Withers produced two of his own cover versions on ‘Just As I Am’. While the definitive version of Everybody’s Talkin’ will probably always be accredited to Harry Nilsson, Withers’ soul power rejig more than holds its own. While vamping organs and tambourine swells and handclaps give Let It Be a gospel soul makeover that suits Withers’ voice perfectly.
The album concludes just as unexpectedly as it began with a blunt social commentary that’s as pertinent today as it was the day it was penned, with Withers’ tackling alcoholism, debts, a broken marriage and suicide on Better Off Dead; the latter being fully realised with the final sound on the album being a single, fatal gunshot. This is an extremely brave and uncompromising finale to an uncompromising album. ‘Just As I Am’ is the sound of Bill Withers doing it, and doing it good.