Bill Withers might just be one of the most underappreciated musicians of the past half century. The West Virginia native (born in the tiny town of Slab Fork) was a constant presence on the charts and radio airwaves in the Seventies. “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” are arguably his two best-known songs and have become standards-covered by artists from Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson to Sting. He’s a multiple Grammy winner, and the 2009 documentary about him, Still Bill, is a must-watch. It will not only bring tears to your eyes, but it will subconsciously direct you to the nearest record store (or iTunes/Amazon) to discover more of this man’s music.

Recently, it became much easier to make that discovery, as Legacy Recordings recently released The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums. This nine-disc set contains every album Withers ever released-eight studio albums and a historic live album from New York’s Carnegie Hall. It is worth every single penny. I could just leave it at that, but…

…as opposed to writing a review of the box set, I’ve decided to dig into each album individually. Bill deserves it., and, if you’re on a budget, many of these albums are available individually.

Just As I Am (1971): Already 32 years old when he recorded and released his first album, Bill Withers’¬†Just As I Am has a maturity that’s missing from most artists’ debuts. Bill also had the foresight to surround himself with stellar musicians-in this case, most of Booker T. & The M.G.s. So, even if you’re not listening to the lyrics, you’ll at least fall in love with the warmth of the players. If you’re a genre-classifying type, Just As I Am will give you fits. It’s soul, it’s folk, it’s funk, it’s gospel. It’s good.

Back to the lyrics, though: they’ll make a case as to why Bill Withers may be the most underrated songwriter in popular music history. Even though “Ain’t No Sunshine” is widely accepted as a modern standard, that song’s just the tip of the iceberg. From the haunting “Hope She’ll Be Happier” to “Harlem,” a song that’s almost cinematic in scope, Just As I Am is a master class in lyricism. There’s a lot that can be inferred by the fact that the two cover songs on this album are of such high quality (“Let It Be” and “Everybody’s Talkin'”) yet, they’re arguably the two least essential songs. On one 35 minute, 12-song opus, Withers tackles fatherhood (“I’m Her Daddy”) childhood memories (“Grandma’s Hands”), gets a little freaky (“Moanin’ & Groanin'”) and closes the album with the disturbing “Better Off Dead.” An amazing entrance into popular music and still one of the best singer/songwriter albums of all time.

Grade: A

Still Bill (1972): Certainly not a calculated rehash of Withers’ debut, Still Bill¬†nevertheless marks a refinement of the formula established on Just As I Am. The songwriting is as moving and descriptive, but there’s much more confidence in the words as well as the grooves. That confidence (at least in terms of musicianship) results in a sound that’s less immediate musically but still quite pleasant. The overall flavor of the album definitely leans more towards funk, and it’s less stark sounding, more “professional” sounding. That’s not necessarily a complaint, just an observation-the vibe here is much more Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye (“Another Day To Run” recalls Mayfield’s Superfly album musically as well as lyrically) than it is James Taylor.

Recorded and produced by Bill and his touring band, you can feel the chemistry between the players from the very first song, “Lonely Town, Lonely Street.” Of course, you’re familiar with the itchy funk of “Use Me” and the comforting message of “Lean On Me” (having been a pre-teen in the late Eighties, I think I’m finally able to appreciate this song without thinking of Club Nouveau’s God-awful 1987 remake.) Soul/funk fans are also probably familiar with “Kissing My Love” (a hip-hop sampling favorite) and the aforementioned “Who Is He,” which Meshell Ndegeocello had a minor hit with in the late ’90s. The remaining handful of songs may not be up to the same standard, but that’s not to suggest that there’s any filler at all on Still Bill…because there isn’t.

Grade: A-

Live At Carnegie Hall (1972): Generally speaking, I dislike live albums. Live At Carnegie Hall is one of the rare exceptions. Bill is in fine voice, the band (largely consisting of the musicians who played on Still Bill) is in great shape, and the audience is appreciative. There are enough new songs (including the fantastic “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” written from the perspective of a wounded Vietnam vet) to make the purchase worthwhile, and there’s enough expansion from the previously released songs’ studio versions that you’ll sit through “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me,” particularly in light of the rapturous response the audience gives the latter song, which must have been brand new at that point.

Bill’s between-song banter is as plain-spoken as his lyrics are, with just enough raised-eyebrow dry humor to make things interesting, and the 13-minute set/album closer “Harlem/Cold Baloney” is a fun listen even if it goes on for 13 freaking minutes! It’s not Dead/Phish territory, but it can be a bit of a chore for someone who grew up listening to 4 minute pop songs. All of that’s to say: as far as live albums go, Live At Carnegie Hall is near the top. I wish I had been there, although seeing as I wouldn’t be born for another four years, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Grade: A

‘Justments (1974): “Life like most precious gifts gives us the responsibility of upkeep. We are given the responsibility of arranging our own spaces to best benefit our survival. We have the choice of believing or not believing in things like God, friendship, marriage, love, lust or any number of simple but complicated things. We will make some mistakes both in judgement and in fact. We will help some situations and hurt some situations. We will help some people and hurt some people and be left to live with it either way. We must then make some adjustments, or as the old people back home would call them, + ‘JUSTMENTS.”-Bill Withers

Two more slammin’ sides of polished funk and sensitive balladry from Withers on this 1974 piece. It didn’t reach the same level of commercial success as his first two albums did, but that certainly had nothing to do with the quality of the music. Lyrically, Bill remained an astute conveyor of emotions, from the snide kiss-off “You” to the gentle “Liza,” which finds Bill’s voice completely unadorned except for John Myles’ electric piano. The orchestration continues to get lusher from album to album, although the strings and sweetening don’t dull the power of Bill’s voice nor do they dull the emotional reach of his lyrics.

‘Justments does have a darker tone than his previous releases. Even songs like “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” that are light musically are essentially breakup songs, calling to mind much of the Philly soul coming from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. That’s to say nothing of “Heartbreak Road,” “Green Grass,” and the heartbreaking “Can We Pretend.” One could probably infer that this song cycle was directly inspired by his divorce from actress Denise Nicholas after a year of marriage.

Grade: A-

Look for Part 2…coming soon.

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