Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bill Withers

  • Just As I Am [Sussex, 1971] A-
  • Still Bill [Sussex, 1972] A
  • Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall [Sussex, 1973] A-
  • + 'Justments [Sussex, 1974] B+
  • The Best of Bill Withers [Sussex, 1975] A-
  • Making Music [Columbia, 1975] C+
  • Naked and Warm [Columbia, 1976] B
  • Menagerie [Columbia, 1977] C+
  • 'Bout Love [Columbia, 1978] C
  • Live at Carnegie Hall [Columbia/Legacy, 1997] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Just As I Am [Sussex, 1971]
With faultness production from Booker T.--even the strings are taut--this is an unusually likable and listenable middlebrow soul LP. As befits a strummer of acoustic guitars, Withers is more folk than pop, and when he adds folk seriousness to a gospel fervor surprising in such an apparently even-tempered man, he makes titles like "I'm Her Daddy" and "Better Off Dead" take on overtones of radical protest where other singers would descend into bathos. I don't find that even standout cuts like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands" reach out and grab me, but except for a letdown toward the end of side two the flow sustains. A-

Still Bill [Sussex, 1972]
Withers has created the most credible persona of any of the upwardly mobile soul singers, avoiding Marvin Gaye's occasional vapidity, Donny Hathaway's overstatement, and Curtis Mayfield's racial salesmanship. He sounds straight, strong, compassionate. And don't be fooled by "Lean on Me"--he's also plenty raunchy and he can rock dead out. The self-production here is adamantly spare, with Ray Jackson furnishing the hook of the year on "Use Me," one of the few knowledgeable songs about sex our supposedly sexy music has ever produced. A

Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall [Sussex, 1973]
Hearing Withers urge the audience on, as drummer James Gadson and pianist-arranger Ray Jackson drive their crack combo, really wipes out the man's MOR aura--nobody else in the music combines hard rhythms and warm sensuality so knowingly. A natural shouter who raises his voice judiciously and a deliberate wryly moralistic rapper, his authority comes through even when you can't see him frowning mildly in his unshowy Saturday-night sports clothes. Two of the five new songs lean on friendship themes, and that's one too many, but the old ones are live indeed. Knockout: the encore, "Harlem/Cold Baloney," all 13:07 of it. A-

+ 'Justments [Sussex, 1974]
Most of side two sounds like Roberta Flack, which disappoints me even though it probably doesn't surprise anyone else, Withers included. Well, I had my hopes for this man, but then, so did all the Roberta Flack fans, every one of whom must love "Lean on Me." Side one, I'm happy to report, begins with a nasty song to a trendy fox who wants Bill to see a shrink! Keep it up, Bill! and he does! Pretty much. For one side. Recommended, but barely. B+

The Best of Bill Withers [Sussex, 1975]
Unfortunately, Withers the Balladeer has had more hits than Withers the Rocker. But the compilation demonstrates forcefully that both share the same convictions. And the two cuts from "+'Justments gain power as a result. A-

Making Music [Columbia, 1975]
The slippage is suddenly a landslide. As songs, all of these tracks except "I Love You Dawn" and "The Family Table" are potentially enjoyable. But most of them are so fragile that one surge of the orchestrations Withers used to resist so steadfastly sweeps them into the mawk. Even "Make Love to Your Mind," a seductive lyric about not getting down (right away), goes on for so long you're afraid the man may overplay his hand. C+

Naked and Warm [Columbia, 1976]
Here Withers returns to the simple ways of his past, working five or six musicians for the kind of hard groove that doesn't have many parallels in black music these days. And almost succeeds in obscuring the continuing dearth of songs--there are only eight here, and the one that runs 10:46, a paean to L.A., includes a couplet about Disneyland that even I, a convert to Withers's plainspeech, find embarrassing every time out. Recommended single: "Close to Me." B

Menagerie [Columbia, 1977]
"It's a Lovely Day" is his biggest hit since changing labels, and this compromise between the mush of Making Music and the muscle of Naked and Warm his biggest album. The compromise is an honest one, the success earned. I wish I could say they made me happier. C+

'Bout Love [Columbia, 1978]
In which Bill acquires a melodist (Paul Smith) and a theme (see title). He should dump 'em both. And if he's in some sort of group therapy, he should dump that too. C

Live at Carnegie Hall [Columbia/Legacy, 1997]
Beyond "Use Me," "Lean on Me," and "Ain't No Sunshine," does anyone remember this guy existed? What a shame. Far more than best-ofs obliged to respect the career he maintained after this hypercharged 1972 night, his legacy is right here, a moment of lost possibility. Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn't yet understand how precarious its status was. Warm, raunchy, secular, common, he never strove for Ashford & Simpson-style sophistication, which hardly rendered him immune to the temptations of sudden wealth--cross-class attraction is what gives "Use Me" its kick. He didn't accept that there had to be winners and losers, that fellowship was a luxury the newly successful couldn't afford. Soon sudden wealth took its toll on him while economic clampdown took its toll on his social context. But here he's turned on to be singing to his people--black folks who can afford Carnegie Hall. A