In honor of the new Bill Withers Complete Columbia and Sussex box set, I wrote a pair of pieces for NPR. One is a radio review of the set itself. The other is a 5-song Music List of Withers covers.
Both were fun to write but in both cases, there were things left off because of time/space.
First up, I wanted to do a “slept-on” song for each of Withers’s studio albums.
From Just As I Am: “I’m Her Daddy”
It’s easy to listen to this at some kind of middle distance and ride off the grooves and miss how devastating the lyrics are: a man discovers an ex-girlfriend has given birth to his daughter…six years ago and is now trying to reconcile himself with that knowledge. Withers was a master at this kind of parable song though it’s easy to forget given how songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Moanin’ and Groanin'” tend to be the hits we remember off this album.
From Still Bill: “Let Me In Your Life”
It’s hard to find a “slept-on” song off an album that was Withers’s biggest hit but this slow-moving ballad is one of his best.
From Live at Carnegie Hall: “Hope She’ll Be Happier”
True, the original version of this song appears on Just As I Am but what I find compelling about his live version is how amazingly intimate he makes the song sound despite it being in concert in front of thousands. It also showcases Withers’s ability to imbue his songs with this heart-wrenching pathos with his plainspoken vocals.
From ‘Justments: “Can We Pretend”
Another gorgeous ballad. Possibly my favorite outside of his obvious hits.
From Making Music: “Sometimes a Song”
Fonky with the “o”. Nothing on this album really wins me over but there’s something about the big fat groove on this that reminds me of Betty Davis and that’s rarely a bad thing.
From Naked and Warm: “City of Angels”
It’s not about to take out “I Love L.A.” for city anthem but…
From Menagerie: “Lovely Night For Dancing”
Is this supposed to be the flip to “Lovely Day”? For a disco-era dance tune, Withers avoids most of the traps that snared his contemporaries and keeps it simple here (even if a bit too literal in the songwriting).
From Bout Love: nothing
Yeah, I tried but really, I can’t cosign on anything here.
From Watching You Watching Me: “Something That Turns You On”
Withers could’ve killed it in the boogie/modern soul era.
A far longer post would look at other great cover versions of Withers songs but here’s a 3-song minipak for you:
The Black Seeds: In the Rain + Ain’t No Sunshine
From S/T (U.S. Army, 1972). Also on the East of Underground deluxe set
The second best army band of the 1970s put together a killer medley combining The Dramatics and Withers.
Asha Puthli: Let Me In Your Life
From S/T (CBS, 1973)
My girl Asha turns out a fantastic cover of this gentle ballad.
Margie Joseph: The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
From Margie (Atlantic, 1975)
The underrated Margie Joseph extends and deepens on this mid-career Withers hit.