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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bill Withers

Last, but certainly not least of my posts on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, is Bill Withers. I must admit I didn't know much about Withers before listening to his greatest hits album this week. I knew him for his biggest hits, especially "Lean on Me," which is in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, and "Ain't No Sunshine," which was his first hit and Grammy-winner.

Withers quit recording in 1985, disgusted with the music industry, so it may be understandable that's not as well known as he should be. I found his voice powerful and soulful, and his songwriting genius. The album kicks off with the sublime "Lovely Day." Guys, steal this lyric for your wife/girlfriend's birthday/anniversary/Valentine's Day card:

"When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you
And the world's alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it's gonna be
A lovely day"

Other great songs are "Grandma's Hands," an elegy to his grandmother that really hits home if the listener has a grandmother that they miss, and "Harlem," about the various nights in that special place. It's hot in summer, cold in winter, but on Saturday nights "everything's all right."

A for his big hits, I found myself turning up the volume on them. "Lean on Me" is a great spiritual song without being religious, and is one of the greatest musical statements on the brotherhood of man:

"Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow
Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on"

Who can listen to that song without running the gamut of emotions, from when they felt bad to how a friend helped them out? It's a song for the ages.

On the other end of the spectrum is "Ain't No Sunshine," about a problem relationship:

"Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
It's not warm when she's away
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
And she's always gone too long
Anytime she goes away"

The bitterness and despair in Withers' voice is palpable, and stabs at your heart.

The other big hit I knew is "Just the Two of Us," a jazzy love song that is accompanied by the great saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. It's the kind of song that could be put on a mixtape for a romantic evening.

When I first heard he was inducted, I didn't think Withers had that much of a catalog to merit it, but it turns out I'm just ignorant. He's an underrated star, and deserves induction without a doubt.

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