February 19, 2003

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Second Time Around

Bill Withers
Still Bill (Columbia Legacy)

Soul singer Bill Withers had the whole package: he could sing, play the guitar and piano, and had a talent for songwriting most musicians could only dream about. Still Bill, released in 1972, is the finest moment in a career that had more than a few. Withers was born and raised in a poor family in West Virginia and did a seven-year stint in the service before moving to Los Angeles in 1967 to start his musical career while working at Boeing Aviation to support himself. One listen to the album is enough to hear the influence of his blue-collar roots; the melodies are simple and sometimes irresistible, the arrangements – a collaboration between Withers and members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – are sophisticated enough to sound merely straightforward and even underplayed; in fact, the rhythm section is as tight as a drum, and the playing as tasteful as anything you'll find from those days.

The album produced four hits, "Lean on Me," an R&B classic that still can be heard on the radio; "Use Me," with its unforgettable hook; the driving "When I'm Kissing My Love," and another memorable tune, covered a few years ago by Me'Shell NdegéOcello, "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?"

It's hard to place Withers in an era that produced the flamboyant Sly Stone and the elegant, urbane Marvin Gaye and that soon would be dominated by the flashy funk of Earth, Wind and Fire, and George Clinton's bands. Still, as extravagant as R&B would shortly become, Withers was modest. His approach wasn't part of R&B's future (nor was the blue-collar stability that shaped him to be a part of the American landscape.) Nevertheless, his career still had a lot of life in it, and the music he recorded is still around to let you know he was here. (J.H. Tompkins)