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Bill Withers: 10 Essential Songs

Written by on April 6, 2020

Bill Withers got a late start. He was nearing 30 when he began writing songs on a cheap guitar between shifts at an aircraft-parts factory. “I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. A demo he made caught the ear of Clarence Avant, head of indie label Sussex, and Withers went on to cut some of the most enduring albums of the Seventies, filled with intimate, slow-burning songs that packed a serious emotional wallop. He continued to notch hits till the mid-Eighties, when he became fed up with meddling from his later label Columbia and walked away from the business altogether. But his modest body of work still stands as a gold standard of R&B excellence. Here are 10 of Withers’ greatest tracks.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971)

One of Withers’ most moving, elegiac meditations, “Ain’t No Sunshine” feels like a mini movie with its sparse arrangement and occasional cinematic strings. Its power is the pure emotion the artist pours into the vocals, as he laments the fact that “this house just ain’t no home” since a lover has left. Withers sings “I know” an astonishing 26 times, and it registers like a lyrical pile driver — you feel the loss right along with him. “I was watching a movie called Days of Wine and Roses, with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon,” he once said of what inspired the song. “They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you. It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.” K.G.

“Harlem” (1971)

“Harlem” opens Withers’ debut album, Just As I Am, and served as one of the LP’s early singles (though DJs ultimately took more to the B side, “Ain’t No Sunshine”). The track is centered around a steady stomp that producer Booker T. Jones builds into a resounding march of orchestral soul as Withers paints a wide-lens picture of life in the titular New York neighborhood, peppered with just the right amount of close-up detail. He documents the brutally hot summers and bitter cold winters; the crooked landlords and crooked preachers; and, as the song reaches a fever pitch, captures the way so much of life seems to hinge on that universal tension between Saturday night and Sunday morning. J.B.

“Grandma’s Hands” (1971)

“Most of us at some point in our lives have somebody that means more to us than anybody has ever meant before or will ever mean again,” Bill Withers said when introducing “Grandma’s Hands” at a 1973 BBC performance. “In my case, I learned how to really love somebody from … just a nice old lady who used some very nice old gnarled hands to make life kind of nice for me at that time when I really needed somebody.” Withers stuttered growing up, and took solace in his grandmother’s steadfast care. In a somber and reverent tone, the brief yet quietly shattering song catalogs his memories of the woman whose hands did everything from clap in church to “[soothe] a local unwed mother” and “[pick] me up each time I fell.” The poetic detail that the same hands used to “ache sometimes and swell” shows the toll her compassion took. “If I get to heaven,” Withers sings, “I’ll look for grandma’s hands.” “Out of all the things that I might have written,” he said on the BBC show, “my favorite thing has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.” H.S.

“Hope She’ll Be Happier” (1971)

“Ain’t No Sunshine” gets all the credit as a tragic high point in Withers’ catalog, but “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is really his most bereft moment. The song consists of little more than Withers’ disconsolate wails and a simple motif on guitar; sustained organ lines add a funereal air. The lyrics are brutally straightforward: “I can’t believe that she don’t want to see me/We lived and loved with each other so long/I never thought that she really would leave me/But she’s gone.” He sings just four sets of four lines, which is probably for the best — how much more could we take? The sparse backdrop brings extra attention to the texture and control in his remarkable voice. The key moment takes place around 2:32, when Withers stretches the word “gone” into something shivering and nearly unbearable. A lesser singer would end the track here, but Withers rips into one final verse. E.L.

Lean on Me” (1972)

Bill Withers’ piano line in “Lean on Me” ascends and descends, resembling hills and valleys — times of hardship and times of grace. Through it all, Withers is there offering a shoulder to lean on and asking for one in return. It’s a song that Withers says he divined from playing around on a Wurlitzer electric piano. The phrase “lean on me,” which he attributed to his West Virginia upbringing, popped into his head and he simply spun out the lyrics from there. “I think what we say is influenced by how we are, what’s been our life experiences,” he once said. “Now, I notice young guys writing about shooting each other in the city and stuff like that. Well, that was not my experience. … I think circumstance dictates what people think.” The song subsequently became his biggest hit — a Number One single that inspired the award-winning 1989 film of the same name, and that’s still covered constantly, even becoming a new sort of national anthem during the coronavirus crisis. K.G.

“Use Me” (1972)

“Use Me” is one of Withers’ biggest singles, and it remains an undeniable titan in the songbook of bad romances — a tightly coiled meditation on a love that feels simultaneously detrimental and addictive. The instrumental arrangement captures all of the anxiety and desire of that situation, the clavinet twisting itself in knots over drums that seem like they’re always about to trip over themselves. And for as much pleading and unease as Withers injects into the crackle of his voice, he also captures a sense of carnal glee, bringing the song to a close with a deft twist: “It ain’t too bad the way you’re using me/’Cause I sure am using you to do the things you do/To do the things you do.” J.B.

“Lovely Day” (1977)

Twirling and relentlessly optimistic, “Lovely Day” is easily Withers’ grooviest single. The bass line is immaculate but funky, a gentle push toward the dance floor; the horns are cheerful but never overbearing. Withers co-wrote the track with Skip Scarborough, whose formidable catalog already included Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” and LTD’s “Love Ballad.” “Whenever I’ve collaborated with anybody, their role is predominantly music and mine is predominantly lyrics,” Withers explained. “The way Skip was, every day was just a lovely day. He was an optimist. If I had sat down with the same music and my collaborator had been somebody else with a different personality, it probably would have caused something else to cross my mind lyrically.” But Skip can’t take responsibility for the lung-busting ending to “Lovely Day”: Withers holds “day” for around 18 seconds, bringing the track to a resounding close. E.L.

“Tender Things” (1977)

Withers’ best-known work dates from the early Seventies, but there are plenty of gems scattered throughout his records from the later in the decade. “Tender Things” is nestled towards the end of his 1977 LP Menagerie, and it’s a delightfully smooth devotional about a new love that still carries a bit of a wink in its opening line: “Sweet and tender things/Are so much nicer than silly games.” That sentiment is a simple one, but Withers sells it with a nimble vocal performance that still packs a few thrills. After emerging from an interlude of soft instrumentals and a touch of humming, he sweeps his voice to the sky as he sings, “And you know that you’re in love when things/Are better than you thought they’d ever be.” J.B.

“Just the Two of Us” (1981)

Withers won a Grammy for this smoother-than-smooth collaboration with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. Washington added several pealing solos, but the power in “Just the Two of Us” comes from the upshift during the chorus. The verses tiptoe forward behind a glossy keyboard, then Withers surges into each satisfying hook with help from a sturdy rhythm section. The track was originally written by Ralph McDonald and Bill Salter, but Withers didn’t like the lyrics. “I’m a little snobbish about words, so they sent me this song, and said, ‘We want to do this with Grover, would you consider singing it?’ ” Withers recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, if you’ll let me go in and try to dress these words up a little bit.’ … It was trying to put a tuxedo on it.” E.L.

“In the Name of Love” (1984)

Bill Withers’ last big hit was a jazzy, easygoing meditation on the power of love. “There really ain’t no feeling quite the same as love,” he sings over a spry electric-piano line. A collaboration with percussionist and producer Ralph MacDonald, the song is sweet and impressionistic, and like the best of Withers’ repertoire, the interplay between the gentle arrangement and the soulfulness of his vocal is what make it a standout. The track earned him a 1984 Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. K.G.

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