No popular singer-songwriter wrote so many good songs about friendship as Bill Withers. “Might be that we have, different views sometimes/But that’s alright, you’re still a friend of mine,” he sang on “Friend of Mine.” Less than a decade later Duran Duran toyed with the sentiment; in 1985 Jackson Browne and Clarence Clemons put too fierce a smiley face on it. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the pop top five that made the thirty-six-year-old William Harrison Withers Jr. a star, is specific about its pronouns, whom it’s addressing; so is “Lean On Me,” the #1 about the kind of relations for which “brother” shimmers as unspoken shorthand.
This gay man understands how friendship acts as a squamous layer protecting us from the disappointments of families; we form our own families because the blood ones disappoint in primal ways. Married to Marcia Johnson since 1976, with whom he had two children, Withers wasn’t queer, but his songs were torches in damp caverns, showing us how the inevitability of troubled times shouldn’t — mustn’t — encumber our own comforting instincts. “Grandma’s Hands” is shattering because Grandma, besides registering as a quiet marvel of a person, teaches him to show compassion to others even at the cost of her safety. The grace with which Withers stretched his grinning baritone connects the dots between gospel’s search for transcendence and folk’s gaze on the problems before us. We tell ourselves “Stories” in order to live.
Listening to the influence of Withers on contemporary R&B is like returning to a lawn twenty-four hours after a good rain. Corinne Baily Rae and Jhene Aiko learned something about acoustic soul. Babyface is unthinkable without him. None captured his easeful marriage of charity and menace: think “Who Is He (And What Is He to You).” Still Bill (a 1972 landmark, mutant folk that hasn’t been duplicated) and especially +’Justments (1974) contain many of these ripples; my tendency this morning was to play the latter, which, surprisingly, scored no pop crossovers. In “Liza,” an electric piano undergirds this affectionate but worried letter from uncle to niece; darkness has a power, but bearable with company. “Life is just a shadow/That I just can’t seem to find sometimes/But I guess I’ll make it,” he sang on the same album’s “You.” Listen to the confidence with which the familiar burr imbues the clause “I guess.” Dialectical complexity? No fuss. Michael Kiwanuka was listening too. So were the thousands a Carnegie Hall when Withers recorded a live album in April 1973 dependent on an unusually robust symbiosis between audience and performer. And it funks like a motherfucker.
Perhaps insulated by the collapse of revenue streams to which older artists succumbed in the streaming era by his wife’s diligent control over his publishing rights, Withers lived long enough to hear a number of inapposite covers. Club Nouveau recorded a galumphing electro-R&B version that topped the charts n 1987. A C&C Music Factory’s shadow group, the excrutiatingly punctuated S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M, found a home for “Lovely Day” on The Bodyguard soundtrack (I hope Withers’ royalty statements matched Nick Lowe’s). No less than Mick Jagger respected “Use Me” enough to snake-tongue his way through the lyric.
Perhaps the fruitful second and often third lives his songs led persuaded Withers the world needed no new ones. He’s got a few in then, according to his own account. In the bad old days he would’ve earned a box set covering his fulsome range. In our current bad days, the simplicity of a trope like a grandmother’s hands has the power to bring us up short. Touching Grandma today could kill her. Let the songbook serve in the way the Holy Ghost of my Catholic roots was supposed to: a spirit without measure, the tongue of fire lapping our foreheads that inspires to sing I know I know I know I know or A lovely daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyy into infinity.
A top ten:
1. Grandma’s Hands (live)
2. Who Is He (And Who is He to You)
3. Use Me
4. Lovely Day
6. Lean On Me
7. Let Me in Your Life
8. Hope She’ll Be Happier
9. If I Didn’t Mean You Well
10. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh