14 October 2009

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 102]

b/w "It's Just A Matter Of Time"
Bill Withers
Sussex/A&M Records 241
Released 1972
Produced by Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers

By the time William Harrison "Bill" Withers Jr began recording for Sussex Records in 1971, he was already 33 years old. Hailing from a dot on the map called Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers had already served a nine year hitch in the Navy and worked as an assembler in several different Los Angeles area companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation. In 1970, his demo tape was heard by an executive at Sussex and he was offered a record contract.

In 1971, Withers burst on to the music scene with the Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. & The MG's fame) produced album Just As I Am. "Ain't No Sunshine" was the breakout hit, reaching #3 on the Hot 100. It subsequently was awarded the Grammy for Best R&B Song of the Year. "Grandma's Hands," a sweet ode to Withers' own grandmother, also made some noise on the charts.

By 1972, Withers had convinced band members from the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band ("Express Yourself") to tour with him: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson and bassist Melvin Dunlap. Along with percussionist Bobbye Hall, this group would be the musical cornerstone for Withers' best studio album: Still Bill, released in the summer of 1972. The biggest hit of Withers' career came from these sessions: "Lean On Me," which shot to #1 the week of July 8, 1972. But a second song from Still Bill, riding one of the funkiest grooves to hit the airwaves, would rise as high as #2 and tag Withers as a man to be reckoned with in a star-studded popular music field of the time (for example, Stevie Wonder was just starting to hit his solo stride at this point).

The Withers penned "Use Me" grabs the listener immediately with an irresistable keyboard hook and syncopated beat. The lyrics are grabbers - we don't particularly know who's done who wrong: "It's true you really do abuse me/You get me in a crowd of high-class people/And then you act real rude to me. . ./I wanna spread the news/That if it feels this good being used/You just keep on using me/Until you've used me up."

For the most part "Use Me" has remained a staple on radio. The band used on Still Bill later recorded a live set at Carnegie Hall that holds up particularly well. Withers eventually left Sussex and signed with Columbia, where he cut four albums. He then concentrated on collaborations with the likes of Grover Washington Jr (scoring the hit "Just The Two Of Us") and The Crusaders. But Withers then faded away from the music scene. In 1988, a ten year old song, "Lovely Day," was remixed and became a hit in the UK. He resurfaced briefly again in 2004, but only as a writer, contributing two tunes to the Jimmy Buffet release "License To Chill."

Bill Withers has not recorded any new music in almost 25 years, despite constant rumors of a lot of unused material and invitations from some of the more note-worthy producers in the business to collaborate. A documentary, also entitled Still Bill, was produced and screened in limited release this past summer. A DVD release date has yet to be announced.

Be sure to check out this video of Bill Withers and his band performing (at a slightly slower tempo) "Use Me," probably taken from English television's The Old Grey Whistle Stop back in 1972. The guitar work of Benorce Blackmon is particularly enthralling.

No comments:

Post a Comment