Still Bill: On appreciating Bill Withers

bill-withersI don’t write as much about music on this blog as I’d thought I would when I started it nearly five years ago. But I want to write briefly about it today because lately I’ve been thinking about Bill Withers and listening to a lot of his music.

Let’s go back to the last time in my life I remember buying a single. It’s 1972 sometime when I go into Beaver Radio on Whitechapel and buy this gorgeous song I’ve been listening out for on the radio. This is ‘Lean on me’ by Bill Withers and one of the best songwriters I will ever hear has entered my life. Around the same time Michael Jackson puts out ‘Ain’t no sunshine’ also by Bill Withers as one of his own early solo singles, and I’m sure something special is happening.

These are not like songs by anybody else, anybody else at all. They are only like songs by Bill Withers. Songs of friendship, wisdom and experience. Strongly expressed and quietly said. Back there in 1972 I’m not surprised when I find that this Bill is 31, so he’s lived a bit, and has written these songs while working on the production line in a factory.

“When I was making them up I’d sing them to myself over and over on the line there until they were memorable enough not to forget. Because I had no way of recording them out there on the factory floor.”

Over the next decade or so I’m always interested to hear new Bill Withers songs – Use Me, Hello like before, Grandma’s hands, Lovely day, Soul shadows, so many more.

Then somewhere in the living of my life I lose touch with the fact that the songs have stopped coming. The existing songs stay with me, on ‘Best of’ CDs, on the radio and even on car adverts. But since 1985 there have been no new Bill Withers songs. For record company type reasons and, well, just because.

Graham Jones at Defend Vinyl. Helping me rediscover Bill Withers.

Graham Jones at Defend Vinyl. Helping me rediscover Bill Withers.

When I ditched all my CDs a few years back I soon found a best of Bill Withers LP. Yet didn’t really start wondering about his whereabouts until Defend Vinyl, the new record shop on Smithdown I often mention on here, opened a couple of months ago. On my first visit I found a reissued copy of the first of Bill’s LPs and had an appreciative conversation about him with shop owner Graham Jones. Since then Graham’s found me his second, and the pair of these records have been at or near the front of the LPs here since they arrived. Works of the very highest quality of the songwriter’s art. A songwriter who has put out no new music since 1985.

So is Bill still with us? Well yes he is. In fact nosing around the internet the other night to confirm this my partner Sarah found a 2009 film called “Still Bill” which we watched last night and which is why I’m writing this. To encourage you to watch it too.

It’s the story of Bill Withers. Straightforwardly and honestly told by a very wise man and his family. I could tell you the story, but not as well as Bill tells it. It’s his life after all.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s the full film:

 

It’s an hour and a half long but it’s as good a film about music as I’ve ever seen. The songs are astonishing of course. But so is the man. Bill Withers, more than a bit of a hero of mine.

Let’s end with the song that brought me into Beaver on Whitechapel in 1972. I think you’ll know the tune:

“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
I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long ’til I’m going to need somebody to lean on”

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