Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Bill Withers Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Just As I Am (1971, Sussex)

A

Produced by the great Booker T. Jones and one of the finest debut albums in the history of soul music, it’s a testament to Withers’ talent that the only thing at all that detracts from the overall quality of the album is that it contains two fine-but-ultimately unnecessary covers (the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”) that feel more like a way of padding out the album’s running time than an effort to artistically enhance an album that needed no further enhancement. There are two bona fide classics included within. The childhood reminiscing of “Grandma’s Hands,” notable for being one of the few hit singles of the ‘70s to clock in at two minutes or less, would just barely miss the Top 40, but it would go on to be covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to the Brit-pop band Starsailor, while its intro would go on to form the basis for the rhythm track to Blackstreet’s chart-topping smash “No Diggity.” The heart-wrenchingly-sad soft acoustic blues of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is even more legendary and ranks among the greatest R&B songs ever written; interestingly enough, the most famous part of the song – its breakdown, in which Withers merely repeats the phrase “I know” twenty-six times, which remarkably never actually gets tiresome and instead gives the song much of its personality and heart – was originally just intended to be a placeholder until Withers could write lyrics for a third verse, but he was persuaded to leave it in. But if you’ve only ever heard the two singles from the disc and nothing more, you’re missing out on some of Withers’ finest work, as cuts like “Harlem,” “Moanin’ and Groanin’,” “Better Off Dead,” and “Hope She’ll Be Happier” are standouts in their own right. 

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Still Bill (1972, Sussex)

A +

Even better than Just As I Am, Withers wisely keeps things more concise here, eschewing the twelve-song structure of the previous disc for a ten-song set of all originals, so there are no unnecessary covers here to detract from the disc as a whole. This is where you’ll find Withers’ most famous song of all, the oft-covered gospel-tinged anthem “Lean on Me”; R&B group Club Nouveau would later take the song to Number One a second time with their danceable and radically-sped-up makeover of the song, but as great fun and singalong-worthy though their interpretation is, it’s Withers’ slower original version of the tune that’s the much more powerful, and it’s little wonder that the Withers recording is utilized as often as it is in television and film – the sheer emotional weight of the song is awe-inspiring. Rare is the songwriter who can write a song of this type without either sounding too sappy and maudlin or too preachy, but Withers pulls it off brilliantly. The quirky, clavinet-driven stutter-soul of “Use Me” is slightly less well-known, but it may be even better, coasting along on one of the most infectious grooves in all of ‘70s R&B. [Though not as vital to the foundation of rap as, say, James Brown, Withers’ oft-innovative beats have been heavily sampled in their own right, and “Use Me” in particular has been utilized by everyone from UGK to Kendrick Lamar, while you can also make out traces of the song’s influence in the similarly-styled grooves of OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.”] The album’s third – but oft-forgotten – hit single, the appealingly funky wah-wah-laced sounds of “Kissing My Love,” sadly doesn’t get nearly as much radio play as Withers’ other hits, but its drum track has been sampled in literally dozens of songs, most notably in Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” But what ultimately makes Still Bill Withers’ best album is that it’s got the best crop of surrounding album cuts of any of his discs, and “Who Is He, and What Is He to You?,” “I Don’t Want You on My Mind,” “Let Me In Your Life,” and “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” all rank among his most criminally overlooked songs.

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+ ‘Justments (1974, Sussex)

B +

+ ‘Justments (or “adjustments,” if you will) wasn’t nearly as commercially successful as Withers’ first two albums, partly due to a lack of a sizable hit single and partly due to the fact that Withers’ then-label, Sussex, was in rapid decline at the time (the label would shutter entirely less than a year later and its assets seized by the IRS). From a purely artistic standpoint, however, + ‘Justments is a fairly underrated album. It stops well shy of reaching the majestic levels of Just As I Am or Still Bill, so it is undeniably the weakest of his three studio albums for Sussex, but it’s also of a piece with the two moody, earlier discs and, as such, marks the end of a brief-but-rich era for Withers before he began moving towards increasingly lighter fare both melodically and lyrically and unfortunately subverted a bit of his personality in the process. The electric piano-heavy funk of “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” sadly stalled at #50 but deserved to do much, much better, its funky but haunting vibe serving as the perfect halfway point between “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me.” “Ruby Lee,” “You,” “Heartbreak Road,” and “Make a Smile for Me” are also standouts here. [“Can We Pretend” is noteworthy for being written by Withers’ wife, actress Denise Nicholas of In the Heat of the Night and Room 222 fame, and also for featuring the great Jose Feliciano on guitar. (Feliciano also makes a cameo on congas on “Railroad Man.”)] 

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Making Music (1975, Columbia)

B

Making Music , Withers’ first album for Columbia, boasts an impressive cast of players (including Dave Grusin, Ray Parker Jr., legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson, The Brothers Johnson, Harvey Mason, and Ernie Watts), but it’s here that Withers’ sound starts to get a bit too smooth for its own good and alienated fans of some of his moodier work like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Songs like “Family Table” and “Sometimes a Song” might not have sounded out of place on earlier albums, but elsewhere, Withers inches closer to the sort of easygoing R&B fare that would be the trademark of the latter part of his career. (Not that it was an altogether bad move either artistically or commercially, mind you – indeed, Withers sounded absolutely fabulous wrapping his voice around such smooth sides as saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us” – but it was a slightly puzzling move from someone who had masterfully alternated in the past from such fare as “Use Me” and “Kissing My Love” to more haunting numbers like “Ain’t No Sunshine” or the heavy lyrical fare of cuts like “Harlem” or “I Can’t Write Left Handed.”) But, if you don’t mind the cosmetic makeovers here, Making Music is still ultimately a fairly appealing album and arguably his second-best disc for Columbia, and cuts like “Hello Like Before,” “Make Love to Your Mind,” “Don’t You Wanna Stay?,” and “I Wish You Well” are awfully hard to dislike. Unfortunately, Withers’ profile had diminished quite a bit by then, and no major pop hits were forthcoming from the disc.

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Naked & Warm (1976, Columbia)

C

It’s not as bad as it looks. Really. In spite of its title and album cover, Bill Withers has not gone all Barry White on us on this, his second outing for Columbia, though the disc undoubtedly is more “Use Me” than “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Mind you, the lyrics can be a bit too trite or minimalist in places here, the songs often riding more on the strength of the grooves, but songs like “Where You Are” and “My Imagination” prove that Withers hasn’t lost his touch as a warm and appealing lyricist, while the nearly eleven-minute-long epic “City of the Angels” is one of his more artistically ambitious post-Sussex cuts.  This would be Withers’ lowest-charting album, but it’s not a bad disc so much as it’s simply inessential.

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Menagerie (1977, Columbia)

B +

Easily Withers’ finest album for Columbia, it’s true that not everything here works – “She Wants To (Get on Down)” is mildly cringe-inducing – but the songs are much stronger this time around than they were on Naked & Warm, and Withers would be rewarded with his biggest hit since 1973’s “Kissing My Love” in the irrepressibly sunny grooves of “Lovely Day,” an impressively tasteful excursion into lite-disco territory, while “Lovely Night for Dancing” makes the perfect companion cut. But the album also benefits greatly from the presence of two highly appealing and bossa-nova-tinged ballads, “Tender Things” and “I Want to Spend the Night,” that easily rank among Withers’ finest album tracks from his tenure with Columbia, while “Let Me Be the One You Need” is another minor gem.

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'Bout Love (1978, Columbia)

B

Arguably Withers’ most underrated album for Columbia, ‘Bout Love (featuring great bass work throughout from the Five Stairsteps’ Keni Burke and Raydio’s Jerry Knight) doesn’t deviate much stylistically from the winning formula of Menagerie, but it strangely eluded much attention from programmers and, in turn, the record-buying public. The songs – nearly all of them co-written with the album’s producer, Paul Smith – are fairly solid, though, particularly “Don’t It Make It Better,” “Memories Are That Way,” “All Because of You,” and, best of all, the deeply funky “Love Is,” which sadly got resigned to mere B-side status (as the flip side of “Don’t It Make It Better”) but should have been an A-side in its own right. It’s arguably the single-most underrated song Withers recorded for Columbia. Radio programmers may not have noticed the cut, but the legendary Herb Alpert did – he’d cover the song (a rare vocal outing from the famous trumpeter) on his multi-platinum 1979 comeback album Rise. 

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Watching You Watching Me (1985, Columbia)

B – 

Withers unexpectedly resurfaced in a major way in 1981 and scored his biggest hit since “Use Me,” thanks to the help of jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., who brought Withers in to sing lead vocals on the Winelight cut “Just the Two of Us,” penned by Withers himself with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter (the two writers behind Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love”) – the combination of the song, Withers’ warm voice, and Grover’s masterful and sultry sax work proved impossible to resist, and the song deservedly soared all the way to #2, staying there for three weeks and becoming an instant smooth-jazz-radio classic in the process. You would think Withers might have wanted to capitalize on the song’s success, but he remained relatively quiet for the next several years, and it wasn’t until 1985 that he’d finally come out of hiding and drop his next – and, to date, last – studio album. Unfortunately, too much time had elapsed since his last hit, and Withers was unfortunately terribly out of vogue by the time this album dropped, and the album would climb no higher than #143 on the Top 200. The first half of the disc is something of a mixed bag, and Withers sporadically fumbles in a big way when he tries to sound a bit more contemporary and compete with the likes of a Jeffrey Osborne or Freddie Jackson, but the disc’s back half plays more to his strengths, and the album ultimately ends up having its share of appealing moments, among them the reggae-flavored “We Could Be Sweet Lovers,” the lovely “Whatever Happens,” “You Just Can’t Smile It Away,” the gentle pulse of the title cut, “You Try to Find a Love,” and the charmingly sunny single “Oh Yeah!.” Like most of his discs for Columbia, it’s a mostly pleasant listen but it’s not an essential purchase.

Compilations:

Sony/Legacy’s 1994 package Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers is arguably the most solid single-disc Withers anthology to choose from. Unlike the similarly-titled 2000 compilation The Best of Bill Withers: Lean on Me (which does add such solid album cuts as “Harlem,” “You Just Can’t Smile It Away,” “Tender Things,” and “My Imagination” to the mix), the 1994 package contains all of Withers’ biggest pop hits, including the Top 40 hit “Kissing My Love,” which is strangely missing in action from the 2000 compilation. [The 1994 package also includes some fine surprise inclusions, such as the oft-overlooked gems “I Don’t Want You on My Mind” and “Whatever Happens.”]  If you want to spring for a double-disc, Legacy’s 2013 package The Essential Bill Withers does contains an entire disc’s worth of Sussex-era material from when Withers was in his artistic prime (in addition to the Crusaders and Ralph MacDonald singles “Soul Shadows” and “In the Name of Love,” respectively, both of which Withers sings lead on), but the material included here to represent his Columbia-era albums leaves a little something to be desired, and some of the lesser Columbia cuts here really ought to have been replaced with stronger fare like “Oh Yeah!,” “Whatever Happens,” “Love Is,” or “Make Love to Your Mind.”

Live Albums:

1973’s Live at Carnegie Hall is Withers’ only official live release, but it’s a great one. Recorded at his prime, it’s got all his hits up to that point that you could want with the exception of “Kissing My Love” and also boasts performances of several fine songs unavailable elsewhere, like “Friend of Mine” and the clever “I Can’t Write Left Handed.”