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“And, I’m going to paint your pretty picture with a song” – Bill Withers
There is a song buried on the second side of Make music (1975), the first album by Bill Withers produced for Columbia after his previous label Sussex, founded by the sponsor Black Clarence Avant, folded. “Paint Your Pretty Picture” is easy to ignore alongside some of the – truly modern – successes Withers has written and performed, such as “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands” and “Lovely Day . “However,” Paint Your Pretty Picture “, from its opening line,” I will sometimes linger and show sadness to people I know who are now gone, “said so much about an artist more concerned with telling the stories of love and loss he witnessed in a world that needed hope, and like someone who understood the pain of humanity.
Like “Paint Your Pretty Picture”, it could have been easy to forget Bill Withers, who avoided the spotlight, after the release of his last studio album in 1985. Withers, who died this week at the age of 81, is become famous. in what was one of the most important eras of black music, especially for male soul singers. Withers had neither the larger-than-life characters of Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes, nor the musical gravitas associated with Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. Withers did not have the melodious voice of Al Green and Billy Paul, and although he was an alpha male, he had none of the hypermasculine energy of Teddy Pendergrass. But damn it if you didn’t feel every word he wrote and every word he sang.
This was due in part to the fact that Withers, when he entered the studio in 1971 to record his debut, Just as I am, on the recommendation of Booker T. Jones of Stax fame, was a man in his thirties who had reached the scrabble stage in West Virginia. He had no interest, or time, in singing “silly love songs,” to quote Paul and Linda McCartney. At the beginning, Withers’ music was raw and unadorned, as 10 of the album’s 12 tracks were originals, including the political and conductive anthem “Harlem”, the anthem of everyone’s grandmother. world, “Grandma’s Hands” and the song that helped make him a star, “No sun. “
However, Withers established early in his career that there would be no padding on his albums; he would use each bar and each groove of these albums to the fullest. As he told NPR in an interview in 2015, “I was not socialized as a musician. It wasn’t the only way I knew how to live. “I hope she will be happier,” revealed what would become a common theme in her music, the reservation that love would always be lost, and there would always be a dark side that few wanted to recognize. This darkness resonates with songs like “I’m Her Daddy” and the closer album “Better Off Dead” – “Now I have to die with my own hand / Because I’m not enough of a man to live alone” – which ends with a self-inflicted shot.
“I’m Her Daddy” and “Better Off Dead” weren’t part of pop celebrity, but a year later Bill Withers was at the top of the pop charts thanks to the definition of the “Lean on Me” generation. ” His next single, “Use Me”, peaked at number 2 and featured an iconic drum break from James Gadson. Withers might have had two # 1s that year without Michael Jackson’s “Ben” (Jackson had covered “Ain’t No Sunshine” on his first solo album earlier in 1972) and “My-Ding-a -Ling “by Chuck Berry. The two successes of Withers were on the almost perfect side of Always Bill, which also included the classic funk “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)? “Co-wrote with Stanley McKenny, more from the point of view of a stalker than a jealous lover. For years, the song would be cited as a musical reference to Withers’ volatile relationship with actress Denise Nicholas, which ended in divorce and at least one incident of domestic violence.
At a time when Withers was ready – with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Carly Simon – to become a transcendent pop star from generation to generation, Withers went hand in hand with his heart and his desire to write and record great songs. , whether pop or not. + ‘Justments, Withers’ latest album for Sussex, was released in 1974 and gave birth to three singles, none of which exceeded 50 on the pop chart. Without a doubt + ‘Justments was embarrassed by the financial difficulties in Sussex, but he was also not interested in recording simple pop songs. A key, but underestimated account of Bill Withers’ career is not his first successes at the top of the rankings – or his supposed return to the late 1970s with “Lovely Day” and a few years later with Grover Washington on the Grammy-winning “Just the Two” of Us “- but the thoughtful, introspective and brilliant albums he recorded in the meantime, with little airplay or fanfare.
As Withers sings on “Stories” from + ‘Justments, “Young and old, we all have stories that we must all try to sell,” and Withers chose to sell and tell the stories that mattered to him, whether or not they were popular with the public. Some of these stories were his, like “Railroad Man”, on which he was accompanied by José Feliciano, who tells stories of transition to adulthood in West Virginia; “Can We Pretend”, a gentle separation ballad that was written by Nicholas; and “Liza”, a lullaby that Withers wrote for a niece reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson “Song for Bobby Smith”, which was released the same year.
As + ‘Justments, Tourniquet, Make music, may not have produced hits, and for the first time included several song collaborators, possibly in concession to his new label. Yet there are gems, like the opening of the album “I Wish You Well”, which seemed like his farewell hymn to Nicholas – because love is always lost – and “I Love You Dawn”, arguably Withers’ most magnificent ballad, if not the most magnificent two and a half minutes in all soul music, with a cold ending that left listeners breathless. Never one for regrets, Withers closes Make music with “Hello Before”, which tells of a chance meeting that will remain a lost love in the Withers world.
Although Withers wrote everything Naked and hot (1976) is the most non-Withers album in its catalog – smooth, overproduced, impersonal – although the ambitious 10-minute “City of the Angels” seemed to reflect Withers’ growing disconnection from Los Angeles and its new label. Indeed, Withers’ time with Columbia was marred by the label’s reluctance to allow Withers to record the music he wanted. While some of his peers like William Bell (“Tryin Love to Love Two”) and Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) found new audiences following the trends, Withers widely refused. And yet there were still wonderful moments, like the originals “My Imagination” (from Naked and hot) and “I want to spend the night” and “Tender Things”, both of Menagerie (1977). Withers’ last big success as a solo artist appeared on Menagerie, and although “Lovely Day” – written with Skip Scarborough, one of the underrated great songwriters of the time (“Can’t Hide Love” and “Love Ballad”) – is a great song, wasn’t necessarily Bill Withers song; almost any major soul singer of the time could have sung this song and it would have been a success.
Withers was more than frustrated with his label when he recorded ‘Bout Love (1979), all of whose pieces were co-written by Paul Smith. Unable to agree on songs for his follow-up, Withers sat down for almost five years before delivering his latest studio album, I look at you, look at me (1985), which ironically included songs that Columbia had rejected, possibly because the label simply wanted to end its contractual obligation to Withers. When Withers released the album, his relationship with the label, and indeed the music industry itself, was no different from all the lost love stories he had been singing for 15 years. It was a good album, advancing the flowing jazz style that “Just the Two of Us” helped initiate, but it would be his last album.
In the 35 years before his death, Withers became somewhat of a mythical figure. There were always artists whose work required comparison: Anthony Hamilton immediately came to mind, as did John Legend, and more recently José James, who recorded a tribute album to Withers. There is not an oldies radio station in the country that does not find several opportunities to play these successes of Bill Withers, including “Lovely Day”, which was featured in Roll Bounce. In recent years, Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” has been featured in films like The best of enemies and TV series like Ballers and Atlanta. “Use Me” appears in the Oscar-winning film american beauty, as good as Any Sunday and Presenter: The legend of Ron Burgundy. There are so many examples of how Hollywood went to Withers to evoke both a historic moment and an emotional depth.
Hip-hop has also extracted the catalog of Withers, including Kanye West, whose “Roses” is a riff on “Rosie”, a song that has been left out with Withers. Menagerieand Dr. Dre, who sampled “Grandma’s Hands” from “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. And of course, there are a lot of covers of Withers music, including “Lean on Me”, a pop hit for Club Nouveau in 1986, and “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)? “,” Which was covered by Gladys Knight and the Pips, Creative Source and Meshell Ndegeocello.
My most lasting memory of Withers’ music is actually a memory of my father. It was a rainy summer afternoon in the mid-1970s, and I know it was a Sunday because my father worked six days a week. While I was sitting on the living room floor, my father sat in the dark on the couch – a glass of black liquor nearby – and listened to Bill Withers. Live at Carnegie Hall. The album was recorded in October 1972, just after the release of Always BillThe second single from “Use Me”, released as a double album in the spring of 1973. I hardly remember hearing the album that day, except with Withers telling the public how the percussionist Bobbye Hall reminded him of his grandmother .
Years later, I came back to this album, listening to Withers’ brilliant anti-war anthem, “I Can’t Write Left-Left”; “Leave me in your life,” which Aretha Franklin covered later that year; and the closest, which combined Withers’ own “Harlem” with the “Cold Bologna” of the Isley Brothers. I realized that Bill Withers wrote songs for people, often black people, who weren’t so in love with transcending pain in their lives that they just found a moment or two to experience pain, like my father that day on the couch. Bill Withers’ music gave people the right to control their pain, and therefore to have the joy that came with dawn.
Mark Anthony Neal is James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and author of several books, including In Search of Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and the next Black mayflies: the challenge and the crisis of the musical archives.