Posts Tagged ‘Bill Withers’

Saturday Single No. 683

April 4, 2020

Once a year during three of the four school years I worked for the Eden Prairie News, I taught an informal class in songwriting. And it was, sort of, Bill Withers’ fault.

Well, it was my fault. But it all came about because of Withers, who died this week at the age of 81, leaving behind a catalog of nine albums of R&B that crossed a lot of boundaries (and found a wide audience). Sadly, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Withers’ music when he was active. (His first album, Just As I Am, came out in 1971, and his last, Watching You Watching Me, was released in 1985.)

I knew and liked the major tunes, of course: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” “Just The Two Of Us,” and “Lean On Me” chief among them. And it was that last song that sparked my awkward and very limited turns as a teacher of songwriting.

It was early on a Monday, if I recall things rightly, and I was at Eden Prairie High School to shoot some photos of the concert choir as it prepared for a performance sometime in the next few weeks. The members of the choir were milling around the room and gabbing, and I stood waiting off to the side, camera slung around my neck, not far from the piano.

Then one of the young men in the choir said to another, “Hey, listen to this song I heard!” And he sat at the piano and sang the first verse to “Lean On Me.” But instead of underscoring every note of the melody with a chord, he played chords under only the first and last words of phrases.

His buddy nodded and said something nice about the song. And I couldn’t help myself. I went to the piano and told the first young man it was a good song, but he really needed to play all the intermediate chords for the song to sound right. He was puzzled, so I sat at the piano and played the song pretty much like Withers does, a chord for almost every note.

As I played, other students gathered around the piano, and when the choir director – a woman named Julie Kanthak – came in, one of the students said, “Hey, check this out!” She came to the piano as I played a bit more of the song. I’d been reporting for the paper for a year-and-a-half by that time, and I guess I’d never mentioned that I was a musician, and she looked surprised.

And when she learned that I also wrote songs, she asked me to come back on another day – when the choir was not deep into preparation for a concert – and talk to the students (many of whom I knew from having covered them in other school activities) about songwriting.

I did so a few weeks later, having given at least some thought to my process. I talked about the challenges of starting with lyrics, which I generally do, and the very different challenges of starting with the music, which I have done only rarely. And as I talked about that, I was surprised to realize something that I then shared with the students: Even though I’ve only written three or four songs by starting with the music, those three or four are among my best.

And I performed one or two of those songs, and a few of my others, talking between songs – sometimes between verses – about the process of putting each of those songs together.

I was in Eden Prairie for two more school years after that, and during each of those, I spent an hour with the concert choir, talking about songwriting and, I expect, learning more each time than did the students I was supposedly teaching.

And here, I imagine, I’m supposed to share Withers’ “Lean On Me.” But despite its small role in my very limited time as a teacher of songwriting – a memory I do cherish – it was never my favorite piece from Withers. I much prefer the album version of “Just The Two Of Us,” his collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. It’s found on Washington’s 1980 album Winelight, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Yet Another Teaser

August 31, 2012

Things have gotten mildly complicated around the EITW studios this week. No real worries, but things are just slightly askew. So here’s another tease for the post I had hoped to offer today, a post that will now be presented Monday.

One of the better aural pairings of the early 1980s was the voice of Bill Withers and the saxophone of Grover Washington, Jr., which showed up in 1980 in “Just The Two Of Us,” a track on Washington’s Winelight album. An edited version of the track – credited to Washington “with Bill Withers” – hit the charts early in 1981 and went to No. 2 on the pop chart and No. 3 on the R&B chart. Here’s the album track.

Another Walk Through The Junkyard

June 4, 2011

Originally posted January 18, 2008

I’m not feeling particularly well this morning (it will pass), and I am behind on household chores, so I’m not really going to write anything. But I thought I’d take a fifteen-song walk through the junkyard (pre-2000) and see what we find. I’ll sort the songs by running time, and then start with the best song I see at about the midpoint of the collection, and we’ll go random from there.

“I’m Ready” by Muddy Waters from Fathers & Sons, 1969

“I’ll Follow The Sun” by the Beatles from Beatles For Sale, 1964

“Not My Way Home” by Nanci Griffith from The Dust Bowl Symphony, 1999

“I’m Her Daddy” by Bill Withers from Just As I Am, 1971

“Feels Like” by Al Stewart from Famous Last Words, 1993

“Little Girl” by Billy Preston from Encouraging Words, 1970

“Quiet About It” by Jesse Winchester from Jesse Winchester, 1970

“The Woo Woo Train” by the Valentines, Rama single 196, 1956

“The Spa” by John Barry from the soundtrack to Thunderball, 1965

“Funky Broadway” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic single 2430, 1967

“Angel of the Morning” by Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts, Bell single 705, 1968

“High, Low and In Between” by Townes Van Zandt from High, Low and In Between, 1972

“If (I Could Be With You)” by Lavelle White, Duke single 198, 1958

“I’ll Be Satisfied” by Don Covay from Mercy!, 1965

“The River” by Dan Fogelberg from Home Free, 1972

A few notes:

Fathers & Sons was a Chess Records project that brought together Muddy Waters and piano player Otis Spann with three members of the Butterfield Blues Band: leader Paul Butterfield, guitarist Mike Bloomfield and drummer Sam Lay. Also sitting was Duck Dunn of Booker T and the MGs, while drummer Buddy Miles played on one of the live tracks that made up the final album. Such mergings of talent and generations don’t always work out, of course, which makes Fathers & Sons that much more of a treasure. It’s one of the great albums of Waters’ long career, and a milestone for the other musicians, as well.

“I’ll Follow the Sun” is listed here as being from Beatles For Sale, and that is where it’s found these days in the CD racks. But I’ll always hear it as part of Beatles ’65, one of those albums that Capitol created during the group’s early years by trimming a few songs off a British release and adding some singles that weren’t on albums in the U.K.

The Dust Bowl Symphony was Nanci Griffith’s attempt to recast some of her more memorable songs as a suite, with backing from the London Symphony Orchestra. It doesn’t always work, and most of the songs on the album are likely better heard in their original settings. (“Not My Way Home” was originally released on 1997’s Blues Roses From the Moons.) One track that works, and is worth seeking out, is “Love at the Five and Dime,” which Griffith recast as a duet with Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish.

The Valentines were one of those groups that sprang up on street corners all through New York City during the mid-1950s. According to Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks, “The Woo Woo Train” was composed and arranged by the group in the recording studio’s men’s room the morning of the recording session. I think it’s a great track; I especially love the raucous sax solo.

Come June 1, it will be forty years since “Angel of the Morning” entered the Top 40. It’s still a gorgeous song – written by Chip Taylor – and a great record, and it’s certainly one of the most enduring of all one-hit wonders.

The bluesy R&B grit of “If (I Could Be With You)” is, to my mind, of a kind with most of the recordings coming from Texas-based Duke records in the late 1950s. (The label was also the home of legend Bobby “Blue” Bland.) Lavelle got her first success with the self-penned “If,” which she recorded while she was in her late 20s, if the date of 1958 is accurate (and it seems to be). White is still recording, and since 1994, has released three albums, two of them on the Antone’s label. The most recent of those is 2003’s Into the Mystic.

Saturday Single No. 23

April 29, 2011

Originally posted July 28, 2007

I probably should have done this last week, but things tend to slip away, and I missed it. That’s okay, though, because one of the points I’m pondering this morning – one that I touch on with frequency, whether I intend to or not – is the slipperiness of time. As Pink Floyd sang on The Dark Side of the Moon, “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.” Only in this case, it’s thirty-five years.

It was a horribly hot and muggy day, July 22, 1972, and there I was, sweltering in a tuxedo. I was an usher, and the folks I was seating were roasting as well. Almost as soon as I handed them their programs, they began using them as fans. As I walked to the back of the church after seating someone near the front, I saw a sea of white programs waving like flags, doing nothing at all to stir the still air inside the church.

It was the first time I’d been in a wedding, and the folks I was seating had come to see the ceremony uniting my sister and my brother-in-law-to-be. They’d met between two and three years earlier, when she was a waitress at the local Woolworth’s restaurant and he was a regular customer. (I still think there’s a song in there that I haven’t bothered to discover.) And in those two to three years, they’d decided to put their lives together into one life.

That can be a scary decision at any age, and the two of them were young, he having just turned twenty-four and she having not yet reached the age of twenty-two. As I – three years younger than she – seated guests and then watched the ceremony, I know I had no idea of what a commitment like marriage entailed: The patience, the tenderness, the time, the sheer work and joyful play of melding two lives into one were things about which I knew nothing.

All I knew was that she was my sister and I loved her; he was a nice person and she loved him. That was enough for me to know. So I guided guests to their seats. And after the ceremony – with perspiration running down my face – I nodded time after time to allow the guests in each row to file out to the doors and greet the couple who were now Mr. and Mrs.

While the guests headed toward our home, we in the wedding party drove to a park next to the Mississippi River for photos. We had just finished posing and were heading to our various cars when the skies opened, and the downpour that had been threatening became reality. Those of us whose cars were further away along Riverside Drive were drenched. I was drenched, too, as I ran to get the car in which I’d driven the newlyweds to the park. The newlyweds sought shelter as they waited for me, and, as I recall, stayed relatively dry.

One can find a metaphor there. From the outside, it seems that their thirty-five years have passed without their having been caught in a major storm. Oh, there were no doubt difficulties; all lives and marriages have them. And there was grief, certainly for the loss of aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents and possibly for other events. But it seems from where I sit – which I think is fairly near at the family table, as it were – time has treated them well, and they’ve done well with their time.

They’ve each had a solid career: He, now retired, was in telecommunications for more than thirty years; she, close to retirement herself, has been in education since the autumn after their wedding. They have two splendid children: Their son works in Information Technology for his home school district, and their daughter is an attorney in a respected firm in Chicago.

As I thought about them this week, about that hot Saturday and about thirty-five good years, I looked, as I frequently do, to the music. And I decided that the song that was No. 1 on the pop charts on that distant day – Saturday, July 22, 1972 – provided another good metaphor for a marriage that has endured and succeeded. That’s why Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” is this week’s Saturday Single.

Bill Withers – “Lean On Me” [1972]

A Baker’s Dozen From 1972

April 18, 2011

Originally posted March 28, 2007

Well, I went back to the twelve remaining songs on my list of love songs and rolled the dice this morning. And we start today’s Baker’s Dozen with “We,” Shawn Phillips’ gorgeous anthem from his 1972 album, Faces. (The song was released as a single in 1974*  but didn’t make a dent in the charts; it’s possible that the only place the single got much play at all was in the jukebox of the student union at St. Cloud State, where my friends and I played it nearly every day.)

From there, we’ve got a pretty representative slice of the year with a few rarities. Nick Drake wasn’t nearly as well known then as he is now, some thirty years after his death. And I don’t think Cold Blood – a San Francisco band with a powerhouse singer, Lydia Pense – was very well known at the time, although all their work is worth seeking out. Manassas, as you likely know, is Stephen Stills and his friends.

The version of “Stage Fright” by The Band is from the live Rock of Ages album, different from, but no better or worse than, the 1971 studio version from the Stage Fright album.

Don’t be put off by the fact that “Hvor Går Du Hen?” is a Danish tune. Sebastian has for years been one of the pre-eminent homegrown musicians in Denmark, evolving from a Dylanesque folk-rocker in the early 1970s to a position of high regard for his frequent musicals now. And “Hvor Går Du Hen?” is mostly music, with only three lines of lyrics. Those lines translate roughly into: “Where do you go when you go home? Where do you go when you leave here? Where do you go when you go away?” It’s a lovely piece of work.

(Instead of posting thirteen individual links for the songs, I’ve decided to put all the mp3’s into a zip folder and post just one link.)

“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces

“I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners, Atlantic single 2904

“Anyway” by Manassas from Manassas

“Who Is He And What Is He To You?” by Bill Withers from Still Bill

“Jazzman” by Pure Prairie League from Bustin’ Out

“Parasite” by Nick Drake from Pink Moon

“I Won’t Be Hangin’ ’Round” by Linda Ronstadt from Linda Ronstadt

“Hvor Går Du Hen?” by Sebastian from Den Store Flugt (Danish)

“Thinking Of You” by Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth from Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth

“I Just Want To See His Face” by the Rolling Stones from Exile On Main Street

“Lo & Behold” by Cold Blood from First Taste of Sin

“Stage Fright” by The Band from Rock of Ages

“Baby, I’m-A Want You” by Bread from Baby, I’m-A Want You

* As it turns out, the single was actually released in 1972, like the album, but for some reason, it did not show up in the student union jukebox until the autumn of 1974.