Critically lauded yet lacking in the cultural status of some now “iconic” albums, Bill Withers’ ‘Just As I Am’ recently turned fifty. Here we look at how the key areas that make it a classic also result in it flying under the radar in cultural discourse.
Having spent nine years in the Navy before moving on to a career assembling aircrafts, Bill Withers had two or three years of performing in clubs and sending demos to labels under his belt before being signed by Clarence Avant to Sussex Records. This late start in the industry, unusual at the time and virtually unheard of now, provided Withers with a perspective he carried throughout his career; that he had previously been a working man, that the industry was fickle, that his time in the limelight was likely to be short lived and that he would happily return to a traditional working life when his time came.
By the time he released ‘Just As I Am’, his debut, Withers was 33 years old. Produced by Booker T. Jones of M.G.s fame and featuring a handful of top talent including Stephen Stills, the album was predominantly a Withers affair with the exception of two covers; ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Everybody's Talkin’’. Opening with ‘Harlem’, a track that had gone through various revisions over a few years, the album begins with the boldest cut in its 14-track run. It’s an obvious choice as an opener, but it stands in stark contrast to the track that follows, one that would quickly sell over a million copies as a single. Now considered somewhat of a standard in its own right, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ is arguably a perfect Pop song. First released as the B-side to ‘Harlem’, it quickly overtook it in popularity and brought Withers’ repetitive exclamation of “I know” in place of a third verse to mainstream recognition. On a personal note, it is genuinely my favourite piece of song writing of all time. Featuring no chorus and yet also having the sense of being all chorus, the track showcases the key feature of Withers’ exceptional song writing, repetition with variation. Withers’ repetition wasn’t new; it tapped directly into an older tradition of Blues and Gospel that lent emotive and cultural weight and substance to his otherwise understated Soul. As if turning objects over in his hands, Withers plays with motifs and themes and single thoughts while coming at them from differing angles.
This observational approach to song writing continues throughout ‘Just As I Am’. On ‘Grandma’s Hands’ his admiration for strong Black women shines through as he looks at grandma’s hands from the eye level of his childhood, while ‘Do It Good’ feels off the cuff as Withers talks of writing his debut while contrasting the fantastical “hitch a ride upon an eagle” with the mundane “grits were made for cookin’” all while reminding himself to “do it good”. At first appearance the latter is simply a feel-good track, relatively superficial. Just below the surface, however, it speaks volumes on his attitude to his music. When he sings “If you read the album cover by now, you know that my name is… what my name is” he both takes clear ownership of the music, while still playing it humble, almost for jokes. Withers was not shy in expressing his doubts over the likely longevity of his own career, but between the conviction in his vocal delivery and moments of self-belief like in ‘Do It Good’, it’s clear that Bill Withers was fully committed to the making of this album. That unbridled authenticity shines through in every track so that every repetition feels like an assurance, a promise and the word of an open and honest man.
After ‘Just As I Am’ Bill Withers would demand even more creative control over his music, a path that would eventually see an eight year struggle to get his final album released before he stepped away from music almost completely by the mid-1980s. Looking back at his debut, which was soon followed up with the album ‘Still Bill’ and its mega hit ‘Lean On Me’, it’s interesting to consider whether Bill Withers would have preferred to consider himself an artist or a craftsman. As someone who could take a simple premise and with minimal dressing create songs with weight and nuance it’s possible to argue the point towards an elevated artiste. Yet, his grounding in everyday observation, his use of like-shaped blocks through repetition and his legacy that finds his songs as modern standards to be used as the basis for others’ work while his own creative albums are unduly, oft forgotten suggests that Bill Withers as craftsman is a more compelling tale.
Whichever way it’s sliced and diced, ‘Just As I Am’ is not a landmark, genre shifting, game changing album. It is not a cultural icon destined to be devoured by the masses and printed on T-shirts. Instead, it is an album of perfectly exceptional singing and song writing that has been loved and lauded for half a century. Whether you discover it or return to it, ‘Just As I Am’ is a classic.