Bill Withers - Still Bill
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
If that gangrenous farce, history, ever played straight and true, Bill Withers would be remembered in the same seventies-soul class as Bobby Womack, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield. No, maybe not Stevie Wonder; shit, man wrote the guidebook for the next eight to ten years of progressive soul with Songs in the Key of Life! But the rest are obvious contemporaries and peers of Withers. For whatever reason, Withers’ status as a king of soul’s funkiest decade has been lost over time. Remembered now exclusively for hits like “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Withers was actually one of the better album-masters of the era, and his third record, Still Bill, is a stone-cold, gold-plated soul classic.
When Booker T. Jones, who had produced Withers’ debut record on the Stax-cousin Sussex Records, was unavailable for the duties on Still Bill, Withers recruited the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, with whom he’d been touring in support of his first record, as his back-up band and set-out to prove to Stax-king Al Bell and Sussex’s own prez Clarence Avant that he could handle the production duties on his own.
His debut record, Just As I Am unveiled the breakthrough hit “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which went as high as number three in the pop charts in the summer of ’71. Follow-up, and live fave, “Grandma Hands”, the kind of bittersweet and wistful personal remembrance that rarely does well in a larger spectrum, sailed to number eighteen on the R and B charts that fall and later returned to the charts as covered by The Staple Singers. Obviously, Sussex was hot to see just what Withers could put out, and despite the removal of Booker T., perhaps the first album’s selling-point for the pop marketplace, they finally gave approval for Withers to produce Still Bill with the aid of members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
The resulting record is far and away Withers’ best, and one that stands tall next to monolithic classics like Call Me, Roots, Hot Buttered Soul, and Talking Book. Led by the obvious gospel-tinged single “Lean On Me,” a sweet-soul masterstroke built around Ray Jackson’s piano hook and slow country hymnals that went to number one on both the pop and R&B; charts, the record blends creamy soul anthems dipped in saccharine strings with country-fried funk grooves. Withers’ acute talent for tales of heartbreak and duplicity were in peak form here, and backed by the cracklin’ rootsy proto-crunk of The Street Rhythm Band, Still Bill is memorable as much for its depth and consistency as its lead singles.
Listeners coming to the record for the heaven-on-earth anthem of “Lean On Me,” drawn from Withers’ upbringing in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, would most likely be surprised by just how funky most of Still Bill was. Sure, there was the stirring Philly-soul of “Let Me In Your Life” and the bubble-bath foam of “I Don’t Know,” but most of the record summons the Watts Band to the grindstone.
After all, Funkadelic was beginning to come into its own by this point. Sly and The Family Stone had stunned the pop/funk world with the fried-brain revolution of There’s A Riot Goin’ On. JB’s Sex Machine had taken classic cuts and turned them into endless dance jams, courtesy of Bootsy and his early-seventies band. The rhythmic crank of seventies’ funk was fully underway, and Withers plays right into its hands. The strutting accusation of “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” rides a Meters-esque beat and grinding wheelbarrow rhythms to tell a story of infidelity and doubt. The narrator questions his woman about the knowing glances she gets from men who pass them on the street, and the way she darts from his eyes when asked. It’s a love story soured by born-on date, filled out with melancholic string swells and its chicken-wired restraint.
Following on its heels, “Use Me” is another of Withers’ live faves. The tale of a man willing to be used and abused by the woman of his choosing, it’s one of Withers’ chew-me-up-and-spit-me-out oaths. He’s tired of seeking permanence with a woman. He’s a willing participant here, a romantic cut now of hope. In many ways, it’s the natural partner to the accusatory “Who Is He?” a logical progression towards acceptance and the animalistic need to fuck and have done. Backed by another of Jackson’s notorious organ-lines and a chunky hi-hat beat, it may well stand as the record’s most essential cut.
But for all the record’s sweltering groove, “I Don’t Want You on My Mind” is utter stank. Sounding like Dr. John’s voodoo haunts prayed out across the marble and sinking earth of Marie Leveau’s tomb, swirling guitar treatments intersect with a grumbling groove line and Withers’s own lost voice. Blues, soul, and muscular funk meet at the crossroads here. It’s strangled and guttural, forced to find form between the lines.
Perhaps a fitting summary of the record, it makes you wonder just how such a man, accessible and eerily out-of-head at the same time, could be so overlooked. Perhaps “Lean On Me,” as successful as it was on both charts, ultimately worked against Withers. By lining the rim with hope and come-together singularity, he promised more than he could, or wanted to, deliver to the masses. Still Bill is many things in the end, bound by the heated muscle of its rhythms and the satin berth of its softer moments. Yet Withers wasn’t gonna limit himself to the glow. “Ain’t No Sunshine” sometimes, and that’s just the way it goes.