This is vibrant analogue update of a notable recording debut.
Bill Withers – Just As I Am – Sussex Records SXBS 7006 (1971)/Speakers Corner Records (2022) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 35:46 ****1/2:
(Bill Withers – guitar, vocals; Booker T. Jones – guitar, keyboards, arrangements; Stephen Stills – guitar; Bobbie Hall Porter – percussion; Donald “Duck” Dunn – bass; Chris Ethridge – bass; Al Jackson – drums; Jim Keltner – drums)
There may be no more of an inspirational life story then singer-songwriter Bill Withers. He endured a hardscrabble life in West Virginia, and then joined the United States Navy. After nine years, he relocated to Los Angeles. There he pursued his dream of writing and recording music. His big break came in 1971 when he recorded the first album with Sussex Records, Just As I Am. Produced by veteran Stax artist Booker T. Jones, the album received critical and commercial success. The first single (written by Withers) “Ain’t No Sunshine” became a Top 10 hit and earned him the first of three Grammys. Later albums included singles like “Lean On Me”, “Use Me” and “Just The Two Of Us”. Wither’s mellifluous baritone and soulful delivery was intermingled with an everyman’s point of view, framed by simplified arrangements. Eventually, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Withers was a trailblazer as a soul artist and was popular in many genres.
Speakers Corner Records has released a 180-gram re-mastered vinyl of Just As I Am. The great Booker T. Jones produced the album and plays keyboards. Joining him are fellow Stax veterans Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson. In addition, rock legend Stephen Stills plays electric guitar. Side One opens with the groove-infused “Harlem”. With a steady acoustic guitar, Withers’ soulful vocals are bluesy. The song construction is built on sequential chord modulations and Withers responds with increasing ferocity. There are strings and punctuation in the arrangement.The next song and album highlight is “Ain’t No Sunshine”. With a sly 3 note vamp, Withers creates an ethereal (helped by strings) melancholy, expressed in a blues context. The ‘I know, I know, I know…” refrain is compelling. This may be the most clever and visceral two-minute recording in popular music history. “Grandma’s Hands” (another single from the album) is classic Southern gospel with a slow-groove pulse. Withers’ ability to present common themes in an anecdotal manner connects his music to the listener. Romantic and funky, “Sweet Wanomi” has a deft electric piano. Withers’ voice is hypnotic and blends seamlessly with the instrumentals.The first cover, Fred Neil’s Grammy-winning “Everybody’s Talking’ is transformed into a Bill Withers jam, especially the “vocalese” interlude. It is now an r & b performance. With jazzy, syncopated flair, “Do It Good” is slow-burning. The singer weaves through complex chords and notes complementing the musical gravitas of the featured instrumental players.
Side Two begins with a tearful ballad.(“Hope She’ll Be Happier”). Utilizing repeat chords and organ shading, Withers manages to distill the universal pain of lost love, but it feels like a fresh take. With Jones shining on organ, The Beatles’ unforgettable “Let It Be” takes on a more rousing Sunday morning resonance, including handclaps. This soulful reboot is visceral and the vocals are mesmerizing. Slowing things down, “I’m Her Daddy” is atmospheric blues and explores a controversial subject. Withers injects the right amount of angst in his vocal delivery. It is set against the trademark Memphis sound. “In My Heart” exudes a plaintive melancholy in a scaled down arrangement of guitar and voice. A subtle tempo uptick at the end is a nice touch. Re-boarding the groove train, “Moanin’ And Groanin” has slow-burning intensity with two-part harmony and nimble guitar riffs. A finger-snapping soul jam envelops “Better Off Dead” as the singer laments about his departed lover. As with all of the numbers, the authenticity in Withers’ voice tells the tale so effectively.
Speakers Corner Records has done an outstanding job un re-mastering Just As I Am to 180-gram vinyl. His smooth voice is centered in the sound mix and the accompanying instrumentals are subtle. This pressing is top notch with little discernible surface noise. There are no hisses or pops.
Bill Withers – Just As I Am
Ain’t No Sunshine;
Do It Good
Hope She’ll Be Happier;
Let It Be;
I’m Her Daddy;
In My Heart; Moanin’ And Groanin’;
Better Off Dead.
More Information Available Through Acoustic Sounds or Speakers Corner: