NEW YORK–It was a cold and rainy night when Bill Withers recorded his iconic Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall album on October 6, 1972. On that pivotal evening, Withers and his band gave that audience a soul-infused, passionate, humorous and poignant dose of timeless music.
Hop in a time machine to October 1, 2015, and there he stood again.
His super-fly jet black afro has been replaced with closely cropped white hair that twinkled under Carnegie Hall’s bright lights. At 77-years-old he is still a strikingly-handsome man with enough swag to pull a standing ovation by just walking onto the stage.
The deafening applause echoed from wall to wall as Withers stood humbled, on the same spot where other African American icons such as Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Paul Robeson had also captivated music lovers.
Keeping with his cool breeze persona, Withers took the praise from the audience all in stride sharing that he had been instructed by his children to “not say anything stupid” and by his Pilates instructor to “stand up straight” when he took center stage.
It was all to benefit SAY (The Stuttering Association for the Young). More than $50,000 was raised for the 501 (c) (3) that has provided speech therapy for many young people with an emphasis on the performing arts. Listening to his smooth and soulful delivery on countless hit records, it can be hard to believe that at one point in his life Withers suffered from a severe stuttering problem.
But his new millennium Carnegie Hall appearance there was no pressure for him to entertain the rapt sell-out crowd. Instead, he enlisted a phalanx of music industry legends and luminaries who all paid tribute to his genius by re-creating the original live album one song at a time.
And how could they go wrong, with the mega list of performers who showed up and showed out for the love of Bill Withers? The monster orchestra was lead by legendary music director Greg Phillinganes, who came fresh off the first run of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ tour. They captured the essence of the original recording brilliantly. On hand to re-create the live album and throw in a few other classics as well were:
Ed Sheeran (‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lonely Town, Lonely Street’)
Ledisi (‘Who is She…And What is She to You?’)
Dr. John (‘Use Me’, ‘For My Friend’),
Jonathan Butler (‘Lovely Day’, ‘Let Me in Your Life’),
Anthony Hamilton (‘Harlem/Cold Baloney’, ‘Better Off Dead’)
Keb’ Mo’ (‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’, ‘I Wish You Well’ w/ the entire cast)
Amos Lee (‘Grandma’s Hands’)
Kathy Mattea & Kori Withers (‘Let Us Love’)
Aloe Blacc (‘Hope She’ll Be Happier’, ‘Just the Two of Us’ w/ Branford Marsalis)
Michael McDonald (‘Hello Like Before’, ‘Lean On Me’ w/ SAY youth choir)
Gregory Porter (‘World Keeps Going Around’)
Valerie Simpson (‘Let Me Be the One You Need’ w/ Gregory Porter)
**Neo soul king D’Angelo was a no show due to illness**
There were many highlights during the spectacular evening of music.
No one in in the room will soon forget Ed Sheeran’s exceptional delivery of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ (complete with all of the “I know..I know…I knows”), nor the genuine, passionate delivery of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ by Amos Lee. Immediately after came the one-woman vocal force of nature Ledisi provided an electric and sassy rendition of ‘Who is She…And What is She to You’ (despite poor audio from the mics during the first half of the show). Soul singing cannon Greg Porter turned it up to ten during ‘World Keeps Going Round,’ while the night’s warmest moment saw Michael McDonald being joined onstage by the (SAY) youth choir for an uplifting version of ‘Lean on Me’.
Anthony Hamilton positively went for blood on ‘Harlem/Cold Baloney’, while dancing just as hard as he sang. Hamilton’s incredible vocal performance combined with the rockin’ & soul kickin’ orchestra took that song to another stratosphere.
However, the standout performance of the evening belonged to Aloe Blacc who delivered ‘Hope She’ll Be Happier’ like his life depended on it. Bordering on pure perfection, Blacc executed the stripped down and heart wrenching sad love song as the audience held their collective breath. Spike Lee and his lovely wife Tonya were among the first to jump to their feet in a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute.
Once again, a cold and rainy October in New York night belonged to Bill Withers. And for that, music-lovers were grateful.