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Just As I Am
The Truth According to Bill Withers
“It's OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you're gonna have to pass through All Right, and when you get to All Right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you're gonna go."
That piece of homespun advice was offered by Bill Withers in the excellent documentary Still Bill. It’s classic Bill. Down-to-earth. Both feet planted firmly on the ground. Blue collar.
It’s no accident that the cover of Withers’ debut album, Just As I Am, features him, lunch pail in hand, in front of the aircraft facility where he worked prior to hitting it big as a singer-songwriter. On the song that ends the first side, ‘Do It Good,’ Withers introduces himself to listeners by saying, “If you’ve read the album cover by now, you know my name is (pause) what my name is.” I am who I am. Take it or leave it.
Few musicians started off their recorded career with the 1-2-3 punch that Just As I Am offers: the propulsive and slowly building ‘Harlem,’ (just wait until the 2:24 mark! Booker T. Jones and Al Jackson Jr. absolutely burn here!), the two-minute masterwork ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ and the back-porch feel of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ which most music lovers my age first heard through it being sampled on Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity.’
This is simple, direct, soulful music about everyday life. The ornamentations beyond Withers and the core band: Booker T., Al Jackson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Stephen Stills and Jim Keltner among others, are kept to a minimum. His cover of ‘Let It Be’ strips back the grandiosity of the Beatles’ recording and moves it from the Church of England to the Amen Corner of the local Baptist church. It’s my favourite version of the song.
Like artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Withers was making soul music that spoke to the times. It’s also intimate music. When you’re listening to Just As I Am, it feels that he’s right there next to you, dispensing plain-spoken truths of life, both good and bad.
On Just As I Am, they don’t get much more stark than the concluding track, ‘Better Off Dead.’ The feeling of hearing it for the first time can never be replicated—no matter how fresh and timeless the song is (those who know the song will know what I am talking about).
When I think about ‘Better Off Dead,’ I also think about ‘Lean On Me,’ Withers’ signature song or more truthfully, anthem. When it was first released as a single in 1972, the B-side was ‘Better Off Dead.’ One side offering the gift of steadfast friendship and brotherhood. The other side telling a very different, darker tale, made even more as it’s contrasts with the deeply funky, danceable groove laid down by Keltner and Booker T.’s clavinet.
I remember the shock when hearing that Bill Withers passed away last year. While he left the music business for good in 1985, and didn’t seem to regret it for even a moment, it was gratifying to see Withers re-emerge into the public eye to take his due as an artist that continues to command the deep respect of his peers and fans. I am glad he was able to feel the love.
If you want to dive deeper into Just As I Am, the most recent season of the podcast The Opus is highly recommended. Listen here or wherever you like to catch your podcasts.
The Pleasures of Solo Brad Mehldau: For many years, I have been a deep admirer of jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. What sets Mehldau apart is his seemingly inexhaustible ability to solo, his light touch at the keyboard and his expansive concept of the jazz repertoire.
While I have a modest Mehldau collection, I must confess it had been more than a few years since I really listened to his music. With a desire to re-acquaint myself with his prodigious musicianship, I picked up a copy of 10 Years Solo Live, a 4-CD collection from 2015 in which Mehldau thoughtfully curates highlights from his solo-piano concerts from 2004 to 2014.
I made the right choice.
There’s about five hours of music here featuring gems from the Great American Songbook, Brahms, modern jazz classics and selections from the Beatles, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, the Kinks and more. I especially enjoy how he takes a certain element of a song—for example, the famous acoustic-guitar riff from the Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’—and structures a lengthy improvisation around it.
He does a similar thing with the Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and then concludes with a simple rendering of melody of the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset.’ Over 15 minutes of bliss.
Mehldau’s liner notes are a thoughtful addition to the set. It’s one where deep listening is amply rewarded.
A Preliminary “Deja Vu” Thought: A few Saturdays ago, the anniversary box of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu made its long-awaited appearance on the doorstep. I’ve had a chance to listen to the entire set, including the remastered vinyl edition of the original album, and am looking forward to sharing some thoughts in the near future. In the meantime, I did want to share one of the bonus tracks that has made an immediate impact, an early recording of David Crosby’s ‘The Lee Shore.’
Laid over a jazzy, deeply mellow groove—very similar to ‘Wooden Ships’—it has been a most-welcome earworm over the past few days. Give it a listen!
It’s Going to Be a Feel Flows Summer: For the better part of a year, speculation has run rampant online on the fate of a planned box set chronicling the music and sessions from two of the Beach Boys’ most acclaimed records: Sunflower and Surf’s Up. At one point, it looked like the planned set was off the table, rumours swirled on whether it would be a digital-only release and then buzz grew ever so slowly that something big was in the works for this summer. The Boys’ Twitter account promised as much on Wednesday.
And this Thursday, that’s exactly what Beach Boys’ fans got. Feel Flows is coming to us all on July 30 in multiple configurations for LP and CD. Not surprisingly, the deluxe 5-CD version is the one to get for me. With a staggering amount of previously unreleased material, it’s a chance to go way deep into one of most creative and collaborative periods in the Beach Boys’ career. It was a time when all six members of the band were sharing the lead in the record-making process that resulted in the bright and brilliant Sunflower and the murky and often-haunting Surf’s Up and a whole lot more.
The first taste of Feel Flows is Mike Love’s ‘Big Sur,’ a piece of sunshine pop similar in sound to Sunflower’s ‘All I Wanna Do’ that was eventually reworked as the first part of the ‘California Saga’ suite on Holland. Hopefully more sneak peeks are to come before July 30!
Hitting the Lee Morgan motherlode: My jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the announcement that Blue Note is releasing the entire set of recordings it taped of Lee Morgan and his Quintet at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California in the summer of 1970. Four tunes were released as a double LP in 1970 (I was lucky to snag a copy a few years ago. The music absolutely burns!) and nine more were added to 3 CD set in 1996 (for reasons that escape me, I never picked it up). At the end of July, we will have it all: 33 often-lengthy explorations of modern post-bop. This will undoubtedly be one of the major archival releases of the year.
A Salute to B.J. Thomas: Last Saturday brought news that B.J. Thomas passed away at the age of 78 from lung cancer. Thomas was a wonderful singer with a voice that fit snug in that sweet spot where country and rock intertwine. He shot out of nowhere in 1966 with a big hit covering Hank Williams Sr.’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ and two years later, broadened his sound by making a trip that many singers did, down to Memphis and Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios. It was there in 1968 he recorded such indelible singles as ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ and ‘The Eyes of a New York Woman,’ both written by Mark James and spellbinding features for Reggie Young’s electric sitar (a sound also put to iconic use in tunes such as ‘Cry Like a Baby’ by the Box Tops and ‘In the Land of Make Believe’ by Dusty Springfield).
‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ ensured Thomas’ immortality—some may also recall that he and Jennifer Warnes sang the theme song to the 80s sitcom Growing Pains —and the hits keep coming well into the 1970s as he battled and then conquered substance abuse, and found religion. Sober for 45 years, Thomas continued recording and performing well into the millennium. In the obituary that ran in The New York Times, Thomas summed up his career this way: “The greatest compliment a person could pay my music is to listen and sing along with it and think that he can sing just as good as me. He probably can’t, of course, or he’d be in the business, but I want it to sound that way anyway.”
My favourite recording by Thomas is ‘The Eyes of a New York Woman.’ Thomas’ voice and the American Sound musicians blend perfectly in a tale of finding one’s heart in the city of all cities. One time, it even queued up on my phone as I walking through Central Park at dusk. A very happy coincidence! All little rock, a pinch of pop and the soul of country. It has the special brew that was the hallmark of the late, great B.J. Thomas.