The albums that Bill Withers made for Sussex & Colombia don’t just represent a part of his career, they’re all nine of the albums he has ever made. Albums, of course, that include some of the most beloved and revered songs of the twentieth century. Reviewing such a body of work feels like being asked to judge a chapter of the Great American songbook itself.
Besides, what more can be said about songs like “Lean on Me”; “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lovely Day”? They’ve become so entrenched in modern culture that they overshadow everything else Withers wrote, even the man himself is dwarfed by their ubiquity. Yet Withers remains as admired by musicians as fans, a man whose songs sit as comfortably on a tea advert as a Questlove mixtape.
That’s always been his greatest talent, to sing tales of love, loss and struggle that cross divides and millions of people in and outside of America can relate to. But you already knew that. What you might not know about Bill Withers you’ll surely find across these nine albums, a collection that grants his music the attention that neither a single, a greatest hits album or a short record review can give him.
So rather than dismiss each album in a sentence, I’ll concentrate on the record that best encapsulates his magic: his live album at Carnegie Hall. It features the choice cuts from his first two albums – Just As I Am, Still Bill – given extended, funkier, more powerful workouts, which refute once for all the suggestion that Withers is too smooth. However, the most remarkable thing about the album isn’t the songs, nor the ridiculously tight band, but the audience participation: the passion of the singing, the way the crowd goes mental at the opening grooves of “Use Me,” the sheer volume of the handclaps, the humble thanks from Withers to the crowd for coming out in the rain and the shrieks when the crowd can simply contain their joy no longer, all capture the magic of what it must have been like to see the man at the peak of his powers connecting with his public.
Bill Withers was – and is – a man of the people. His songs–about heartbreak, war, his grandmother or his city–resonate deeply with people. They did back in New York in 1972 and they will wherever you are in 2013. This definitive collection represents an opportunity to discover and investigate this wonderful musician in the depth he deserves.
– Will Georgi