Just As I Am
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2005, Volume 12, #12
Written by John Metzger
Despite the fact that itís been 20 years since he has released an album of new material, Bill Withersí legacy has continued to grow at a phenomenal rate. Indeed, since issuing Watching You Watching Me in 1985, Withersí songs have been sampled by Will Smith, Blackstreet, and Big Daddy Kane, and more recently, they have become hot commodities in the global advertising community. Given the level of exposure that his work continues to receive, itís almost impossible to imagine that Withers initially had a tough time getting his career underway or that until now, his debut Just As I Am ó which spawned the Grammy-winning, million-selling single Ainít No Sunshine ó has never been issued properly in the digital age. Nevertheless, its incarnation as a DualDisc was well worth the wait.
After a nine-year stint in the Navy, Withers settled into life as a factory worker while trying to make a living as a songwriter. Initially, he struggled to obtain any interest in his work, and he repeatedly was told by the A&R representatives for the major labels that he wouldnít succeed because he was too old, his voice was too smooth, and his style was too commonplace. Just as he was about to give up hope, Forrest Hamilton, son of drummer Chico Hamilton, heard his demos and introduced him to Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records. Shortly thereafter, he found himself sitting in a recording studio with Booker T. Jones as his producer and a backing band that included guitarist Stephen Stills, bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson.
Whether it was the wisdom of Jones or the small budget allotted to him by Sussex, Just As I Am proved to be a remarkably understated affair, and while it wasnít perfect, it certainly was strong enough to silence Withersí detractors. Sure, a syrupy string section swooped through a few of its tracks, forever anchoring them to the early í70s. Regardless, these minor moments of glossy texture did little to mar the inherent earthiness of his material, which blended the sweetness of Sam Cooke with the bitterness of the blues. On Iím Her Daddy, Withers spun a sad tale of a man who missed the first six years of his daughterís life because he didnít know that she even existed, while Harlem was a gritty and urgent depiction of the African-American experience. Elsewhere, he crawled within the mind of an alcoholic at the end of his rope on the chilling lament Better Off Dead; infused The Beatlesí Let It Be with an uplifting, gospel-bred fervor; and mourned lost love on Ainít No Sunshine and Hope Sheíll Be Happier. In addition to a 5.1 surround sound mix of the original outing, the DVD portion of Just As I Am features a trio of Withersí early í70s promotional appearances as well as a documentary that utilizes old and new interview footage to provide perspective on the endeavor. In the end, however, itís enjoyable, but largely anecdotal fare that pales in comparison with the album itself.
Just As I Am/Still Bill [2-for-1 CD] is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box