The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums
Rating: 4 stars
It didn’t hurt that Bill Withers had musicians playing on his album that read like a who’s who throughout his career: Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & The MG’s); Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, & Nash); James Gadson, Ray Jackson, Melvin Dunlap, and Benorce Blackmon (The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band); Dorothy Ashby; Keni Burke; Ralph MacDonald; Ray Parker; Paulinho da Costa; Paul Jackson, Jr.; David Foster; and Greg Phillinganes. Take all of that away, however, and you’re still left with a collection of tunes crafted by a songsmith whose insight into the life of the everyman is as honest as it is reflective. While his name may not be one of the first that rolls off the tongue of a modern-day artist or even the casual music listener, you can be sure that his pen has sparked the creativity of any number of songwriters and touched the hearts and minds of music lovers around the globe.
Perhaps as unassuming as any music star has ever been, Withers virtually walked away from the major label music game over 25 years ago, with his final full length, Watching You Watching Me, being released in 1985. For a period of 8 years, however, between 1971 and 1978, he released an album a year. His debut album, Just As I Am, was issued when he was 30 years old, an age that was old for a new music act even during a time when there was less of a focus on image than there is today. Featuring 12 tracks with topics ranging from failed relationships (“Hope She’ll Be Happier”) to a man discovering he has a daughter he didn’t previously know about (“I’m Her Daddy”), it covers a breadth of material showing Withers as a writer wasn’t going to pigeonholed strictly as a lover man. Four minutes of music from two short songs – “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” – covers a lifetime of deep-rooted human experience. The former, of course, is a ’70’s radio favorite and one of the most covered tunes of all time, but the latter is a love song paying homage to Withers’ grandmother. With a line like “If I get to heaven I’ll look for grandma’s hands,” it’s readily apparent how important of a role model she was to him.
While much of his album catalog has been readily available, thanks in part to 3 album reissues of his final Sussex album (+’Justments) his first two Columbia entries (Making Music and Naked & Warm) from Reel Music, it’s his final two albums (‘Bout Love and Watching You Watching Me) that haven’t been available for a long time on CD. And while those final albums aren’t as highly revered as his initial output, it’s those two that may well drive fans to this set.
Even though 9 discs compose this collection, it’s not a full Withers discography. Missing is “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington, a one-off 45 entitled “USA” from 1981, a stunning demo called “Rosie” that was included on a reissue of Menagerie several years ago, and a few other select collaborations. Still with those small shortcomings, it’s the most inclusive single package of Withers’ material and at a retail price of $65 through PopMarket, it’s one of great value at approximately $7 per title. Add in a foreword and collected commentary from Bill Withers himself and an essay from Michael Eric Dyson, a noted author, professor, and political analyst, and it’s a set complemented with as much as written thought as it is with musical content.
Even though he peaked on the charts around the end of his tenure on Sussex, albeit with a brief return with a top 10 R&B hit in 1977 with “Lovely Day,” he never lost his penchant for crafting a heartfelt tune. To try to define his career based on chart success, however, would be a foolish stance. With one listen to “Stories” from +’Justments, you get an idea of his immense talent. The opening music bed of harp and piano laid down by Dorothy Ashby and John Barnes, respectively, is lush and provides a dreamy backdrop for vignettes of a widow, prostitute, and a lost young man. The bridge perhaps sums up Bill Withers’ writing best:
Young and old we all have stories
That we all must try to sell
Tales of how you get to heaven
And how we’ve been through hell
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Eric Luecking is the founder of the site Record Racks.