Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-soulman extraordinaire Bill Withers. It’s “Use Me”, a story of dysfunctional, one-sided, and yet sexually charged love as it appears on Withers’ 1972 album Still Bill, his second album. That album also features another big hit, “Lean On Me”, which is arguably more celebrated as one of the most life-affirming songs ever written.
But, “Use Me” is the photo opposite; a story of darkness, lust, and that even features a bona fide family intervention. That’s pop music all over, with one song on a record exploring the enlightened side to the human experience, while another is better understood in the dark, shadowy corners of human impulse. Read more
Here’s a clip of singer-songwriter-soulman Bill Withers singing one of his biggest hits, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, from his 1971 LP Just As I Am.
This is a favourite track of mine, a blues structure in a minor key which is an approach to that form that I would have thought would be more common. But, as it is, it’s unique all around. Withers’ tune is a towering statement in pop song loneliness, a lament of a tune laden with pathos and soul to spare.
I know I always beat this to death when it comes to the subject of R&B singing, but you’ll notice that Withers doesn’t see fit to emote all over this. He’s a good enough writer and a smart enough performer to trust in the song, and not in histrionic delivery. And yet, note the breathing control during the “I know, I know…” section. This guy is a great technical singer.
Withers made this record into one that isn’t easily pigeonholed. Overall, I’d say it’s an R&B record. But, with the acoustic folk feel, it departs from the usual textures of that genre. And his voice offers a relaxed, tempered feel of a folk artist, not a soul man. Maybe it was because both Booker T. Jones (organist for Booker T. and the MGs) and Stephen Stills with Graham Nash were in the studio when it was recorded. You couldn’t ask for a better presence in the studio when trying to create music that brings the world of soul together with the world of folk-rock. Yet, it’s Withers’ own talent which brings this off; his restrained, yet believable voice, not to mention a great song that not many writers can match for impact.
Despite standing outside of an obvious musical category, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a breakthrough hit for Withers, written while still working in a factory. Since his recording of the song, it’s become a popular favourite for other artists too ranging from pop wunderkind Michael Jackson, to country-pop chanteuse Crystal Gayle, to indie-hero Mark Eitzel.
This record off of which this tune comes proves the rule that necessity is the mother of invention. Prior to this release, Withers was starved for material in a genre which, like a lot of country music at the time, relied on outside writers. At the time, Withers was trying to break into a singing career while in his early 30s and not connected to the machinery of the music business, stumbling blocks both. Dauntless, he wrote all the songs himself including this one, all but for his cover of Fred Neil‘s ‘Everybody’s Talkin'” which Harry Nilsson had made into a hit two years before, and Lennon/McCartney’s “Let it Be”, which perhaps the muse should have delivered to Withers to write, so suited it is to his voice.
Although rarely put into the first string soul pantheon by critics, Bill Withers is his own man when it comes to a quality output and a signature style. Withers’ influence can be heard in the work of India Arie, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Ron Sexsmith, among many others.