Bill Withers titled his 1971 debut album Just As I Am, and the raw, simple and understated cover photo seemed to support that title. Withers, with an ingratiating smile on his face and a lunch pail in his hand, is standing against a brick wall at California’s Webber Aircraft facility. The US Navy aircraft mechanic turned guitar-slinging singer/songwriter was somewhat of an anomaly on the music scene, and in his understated manner wrote on the album’s jacket, “It matters not where I came from in relation to the world, as long as the world and I arrive at a common point at a common time. I would like to thank Sussex Records and Booker T. Jones for allowing me to present myself to whoever is kind enough to listen.” Though Withers largely retired from music over twenty-five years ago, his debut statement and its oft-covered “Ain’t No Sunshine” has been recognized as a bona fide classic of pop and soul. Big Break Records has reissued Just As I Am with Withers’ participation for a 40th Anniversary Edition which has just arrived in stores.
A native of West Virginia, Withers served for nine years in the U.S. Navy, and upon his 1965 discharge continued to work in the aircraft business even as he began pursuing an extracurricular interest in making music. A number of fortuitous occurrences led to Withers being introduced to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records, who in turn brought Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs, to Withers. Jones was signed to produce the album that became Just As I Am, and brought along compatriots like Al Jackson and the recently-departed Donald “Duck” Dunn to contribute musically. Adding a unique sound to the album was the guitar of Stephen Stills, with whom Jones had recently worked and also enlisted to join the sessions for the debut of this new singer/songwriter.
Hit the jump for more, including the track listing and an order link!
Sussex Records’ gamble with the untried Withers paid off. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” off the debut album, sold over one million copies and netted the singer a Grammy Award. This was clearly meant to be; the album’s opening cut “Harlem” was the intended single, but prescient DJs turned the 45 over, preferring the scorching funk and passion of “Sunshine” instead. Withers’ Follow-up album Still Bill in 1972 yielded two more million-sellers: “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” Legal issues with Sussex, however, would delay a third long-player until 1974; Withers then signed to Columbia Records, and the major label also purchased his back catalogue. Four albums appeared on Columbia between 1975 and 1978 though none scaled the heights of his first two collections. 1978’s ‘Bout Love, however, introduced “Just the Two of Us,” a soulful ballad which would soar as a duet with Grover Washington, Jr. in 1980. Appearing on the saxophonist’s album Winelight, “Just the Two of Us” would win a Grammy for Best R&B Song and hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1985, Withers recorded Watching You, Watching Me, which contained the Top 40 R&B hit “Oh Yeah.” As of this writing, the LP is Withers’ final studio album. In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy award nomination and in 1988 his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for Club Nouveau’s recording of “Lean on Me.”
Withers has kept a low profile for the past two decades, although he emerged to contribute two songs to Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 album License to Chill. Just As I Am remains as relevant today, though, as it did in 1971, containing not only “Ain’t No Sunshine” but the personal “Grandma’s Hands” and the mini-dramas “I’m Her Daddy,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and “Harlem.” Withers even brought his own spins to covers of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” (popularized by Harry Nilsson) and The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Big Break’s reissue is no-frills, music-wise, containing no additional material. Withers has contributed, though, to a lengthy and valuable new essay from Rico “Superbizzee” Washington which puts the album into perspective. As usual for Big Break, it’s handsomely housed in a super jewel box. Nick Robbins has remastered. The 40th Anniversary Edition of Just As I Am is available now and can be ordered below. Even as we hope further Withers reissues materialize from BBR, producer Leo Sacks has been working on a special project with Withers’ catalogue. Our friends at Record Racks have the scoop in an interview with Sacks, and you can find it here!
Bill Withers, Just As I Am (Sussex SXBS-7006, 1971 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0143, 2012)
- Ain’t No Sunshine
- Grandma’s Hands
- Sweet Wanomi
- Everybody’s Talkin’
- Do It Good
- Hope She’ll Be Happier
- Let It B
- I’m Her Daddy
- In My Heart
- Moanin’ and Groanin’
- Better Off Dead