Of all the artist selected for the Spotlight series, William Harrison Withers, Jr. is the most deceptively simple. He’s a singer that is known for singing. Yet, disciples of any “Greatest of” list probably won’t notice his absence.   Despite a Grammy-winnng career, and a masterpiece class (“Lean on Me”), William “Bill” Withers never became a rhinestone studded headliner.  Blame it on West Virginia.

He does not come from the well-trod geography boasted of by his R&B contemporaries, and his more deliberative rise came after the peak of the production powerhouses in Detroit and Memphis.  In the end, there may be something about growing up in the poverty of coal-mining country that strips bare all the scaffolding that decorates music. Many will say that West Virginia is unforgiving territory, and the lack of artifice prevents spun tales of princess being rescued, riches been found, and life being lived happily thereafter.  And the confinement to hours in dank coal mines makes sunlight, even a peek, a more appreciative commodity than rapturous or saccharine love songs.  Bill didn’t sing those songs. His style, sparse and deliberate, gave R&B fans two eternal hits: “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me”.  Simple lyrics, sung without pleading, pity, hollers or hosannas:

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/It’s not warm when she’s away/Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/And she’s always gone too long anytime she goes away

He never begs.  Yet, we hear his longing for “the young thing” (the one he should be leaving alone), in every touch of of his voice to the lyrics.  Without raised praises to any formal deity, he called us in stewardship to our brothers and sisters, for their sake and for our own on his only #1 hit single, “Lean on Me”:

Lean on me when you’re not strong/And I’ll be your friend/I’ll help you carry on/For it won’t be long/’Til I’m gonna need/Somebody to lean on

If Bill Withers remained underrated as a solo 70’s R&B artist, he gained increased recognition following two of his jazz collaborations in the early 80’s.  “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. (from the iconic “Winelight” album) and “In the Name of Love” with Ralph MacDonald (who co-produced the “Winelight” album that had an instrumental version of song) offered flashbacks for fans that recognized the voice behind “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me” and “Grandma’s Hands”.  While “Just the Two of Us” would become a rotation classic on Quiet Storm and Smooth Jazz formats, it would not re-ignite Bill Withers career. Bill Withers last solo album produced only one single heard by most listeners “Oh Yeah”, from his 1985  album “Watching You, Watching Me”.

Although “Oh, Yeah” was his last radio hit, various re-interpretations of “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” have surfaced throughout the last 20 years.  Yet, none has altered the permanency of his perfect delivery. While the casual listener may only know him as the voice behind those hits, fans’ pleasure includes classic songs from his 10 albums produced between 1971’s “Just As I Am’ through 1985’s “Watching You Watching Me”. What he didn’t produce in glitter and shine, he provided with simple, yet complete story telling lyrics, solid production and a voice faithful to his roots.

Enjoy

Track List:

Harlem/Use Me/I Wish You Well/It Ain’t Because of Me Baby/The Same Love that Made Me Laugh/Just the Two of Us/ In the Name of Love/Oh Yeah!/Hello Like Before/You Just Can’t Smile it Away/Hope She’ll Be Happier/Memories Are that Way/Let Me Be the One You Need/You Try to Find a Love