The music of Bill Withers radiated a quality that’s rare in pop songs and, really, anywhere else: selflessness.
It’s in the subjects that Withers, who died on Monday, chose to sing about: his grandmother’s hard-won wisdom in “Grandma’s Hands,” the suicidal regrets of a failed husband in “Better Off Dead,” and in one of his most indelible songs, “Lean on Me,” a churchy pledge of unconditional help and compassion.
Perhaps it was because Withers was already a grown-up, in his early 30s, when his recording career started. He was raised in a large family in West Virginia coal country, served in the Navy and worked factory jobs before getting the chance to record. He hadn’t been sheltered from the everyday lives that he would write about.
Withers’s most triumphant years, the early 1970s, were also an idealistic time for soul music. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire and others were writing community-minded songs that melded urban realism and utopian aspiration. Withers could be every bit their peer, particularly in the ways he brought big issues down to personal stories, like his portrait of a badly wounded Vietnam veteran, “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” And when he wasn’t observing outside characters, Withers could also depict the deepest jealousy, loneliness and melancholy, in songs like “Who Is He (And What Is He to You),” “You,” and his despondent megahit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a model of profound simplicity.
His voice was at the center of every song, reedy and gritty, strong enough for preacherly declamations and smooth enough to carry a lover’s endearments. Yet he chose to treat that utterly distinctive voice modestly — as a vehicle, not a centerpiece. He sang his stories with down-home fervor, but he was also more than willing to let the sense of the words dissolve into rhythm and incantation, into impulses and feelings.
Withers made it seem — with deep-rooted knowledge and virtuoso skill — that each song was creating its own borderless style and groove on the spot, steeped in but never beholden to blues, gospel, country, jazz, folk, rock or any other defined idiom. Imagine Withers’s voice removed from songs like the defiant “Use Me,” and the grooves he devised (with his top-notch studio bands) nearly capture the mood on their own — though Withers’s vocals would also engage those grooves with every phrase.
Withers was ill-used by a recording business that second-guessed his songwriting. In his acceptance speech at his long-belated 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, he defined A&R, record label jargon that stands for artists and repertoire, as “antagonistic and redundant.” After his 1974 album “+‘Justments,” filled with brooding songs about love gone wrong, Withers and his new label, Columbia, recast him as a more conventional romantic crooner. He had some suavely commercial moments: “Lovely Day” in 1977, which for its final minute flaunts one almost impossibly sustained note after another, and “Just the Two of Us,” which appeared on a 1980 album by the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.
Withers’s musical ingenuity lingers on his later albums in some eccentric rhythm tracks and sly chord progressions — and he did manage to resist making disco. But the joyful, risky self-invention of his early albums had given way to professionalism. He made his last album in 1985, then earned a living from his publishing catalog, refusing offers to record again.
The Withers album to savor is the one he recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1972. He brought a band of first-call studio musicians and gathered all of his best early material, seasoned by serious touring. Songs that had been limited to three minutes in studio versions get a chance to groove longer and harder: “Use Me” rides a backbeat of audience handclaps to syncopated ecstasy, and tops that with a reprise. Withers’s voice had a rawer tone than his studio performances without sacrificing any improvisational subtleties.
And the songs were populated not with one singer’s ego, but with friends, relatives, lovers, rivals and, in an all-out 13-minute, key-changing, wah-wah throwdown, a week in the life of an entire neighborhood, “Harlem.” It’s not about Withers; it’s about music where everybody lives.