Bill Withers: Still Bill

MAY 1972 (40 YEARS AGO)
Bill Withers: Still Bill is released.
# allmusic 5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Still Bill is the second studio album by Bill Withers, released in May, 1972 by Sussex Records. It includes two hit singles: “Lean on Me”, which is number 205 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and went to number 1 on the Billboard pop and R&B charts in summer of 1972; and “Use Me”, which went to number two on the same charts in fall of 1972. It was certified Gold by the RIAA. The 2003 Columbia Records CD reissue includes two tracks from Withers’ 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall.
Not only does Still Bill capture Bill Withers’s excellent playing and singing and his seemingly effortless synthesis of soul, folk, gospel, and funk, it is packed front to back with some of the best songs he ever wrote (and there were a good many of them). His most popular and best-known tune is here, the stirring, hymn-like “Lean On Me” (it was a #1 hit for Withers at the time, and has been further popularized in several cover versions). Also here is “Use Me,” another hit, which boasts a twist on traditional love songs with a gutsy, syncopated rhythmic drive that is nearly irresistible.
Yet everything else on the album holds up to the strength of these singles. The slinky, suspicious “Who Is He (And What Is He To You),” the smooth, lover man soul of “Let Me In Your Life,” the jazzy, hi-hat driven funk of “Another Day To Run” all go down perfectly. This is due mostly to Withers’s subtle, organic sound and warm, soulful voice– the album is so pleasurable to listen to it is easy to overlook the superior quality of the songs and the complex, layered arrangements. Still Bill is one of those records that always sounds good: played loudly or quietly, day and night, summer and winter. It is endlessly playable, and one of the unjustly overlooked singer/songwriter albums of the ’70s or any era.
Bill Withers has a rough, unexceptional sort of voice and he sings like a truckdriver, banging out the hot numbers with a resonant holler or treating ballads with a warm, conversational ease. He has no time for pretty effects and this simple, straightforward approach–reflected in his lyrics as well as his singing–is clearly his most attractive quality. With no pretense to being “down to earth,” he is just that–a rarity on a scene where flashy arrogance is still the popular pose. Withers’ first album, Just As I Am, established him as a voice and as a songwriter, primarily with the touching “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.” But while it had a solidity and realness and a sprinkling of star credits (producer Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn, Chris Ethridge, Steven Stills), the album lacked a certain confidence and verve. The latest effort, Still Bill, has those missing qualities in abundance–just see what a little success can do.
This time Withers took on his own production, working with a core group of four musicians. Withers on acoustic guitar remains in the front of most arrangements and, though it is largely uninventive strumming, his unpolished work, like his voice, is turned to his advantage and offset nicely by the punch of the backing instruments. On the final cut, “Take It All In And Check It All Out,” for instance, the persistence of Bill’s strumming which opens up the song is pierced and threaded by the sly, needling comments of Benorce Blackman on wah wah guitar. Elsewhere, the strings may come in kind of thick and syrupy but, oddly enough, do little to mar the determinedly unfussy surface of the album.
Where some of the songs seemed to languish, unrealized, on Just As I Am, the material here is so buoyed up by the production that even minor pieces achieve a satisfying fullness. Among the most successful cuts: “Use Me,” rumbling along on a tough electric piano pattern (Ray Jackson feeling like Stevie Wonder) and fine, tight percussion (James Gadson), sets Withers shouting, “I want to spread the news/if it feels this good getting used/you just keep on using me–/until you use me up.” “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” has an equally insinuating sound, more guitar-based this time (and the strings could easily have been dispensed with). The only lyric here not Withers’ own, it’s a neat, witty examination of jealousy that Bill carries with just the right tone of suspicious accusation–”You tell me men don’t have much intuition/Is that what you really think or are you wishin’?”
The light, mellow “I Don’t Know” is typical of Withers’ simple, quite effective love songs: “I get a warm summer feeling walking througy the snow/Even chilly darkness has the brightest glow.” Not a particularly “clever” or innovative songwriter, Withers’ strength lies in his directness and ability to invest even the most “inarticulate” lines with a precise emotional weight: “And I just love you so, sometimes I just don’t know.”
On the whole, it’s a tougher, more relaxed, more assured album than Withers’ first effort. Nothing is thrown away; everything works with an unexpected clarity and strength. In the man’s own words, you ought to take it all in and check it all out. (RS 110)
~ VINCE ALETTI (June 8, 1972)
All songs written and composed by Bill Withers; except where indicated.
Side one             
1.            “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” 3:42
2.            “Let Me in Your Life” 2:41
3.            “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?”
               (Withers, Stanley McKenny) 3:13
4.            “Use Me” 3:45
5.            “Lean on Me” 4:17
Side two             
1.            “Kissing My Love” 3:49
2.            “I Don’t Know” 3:04
3.            “Another Day to Run” (Withers, Benorce Blackmon) 4:38
4.            “I Don’t Want You on My Mind” 4:34
5.            “Take It All in and Check It All Out” 2:42
2003 reissue bonus tracks           
11.          “Lonely Town, Lonely Street”
        (Recorded live at Carnegie Hall, 1973) 4:06
12.          “Let Me in Your Life”
        (Recorded live at Carnegie Hall, 1973) 4:16

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