Bill Withers built a Hall of Fame career by challenging convention

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Today’s news that Bill Withers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought us back to his wonderfully forthright and soulful folk songs — as recently compiled in The Essential Bill Withers, required listening for anyone only familiar with his big hit “Lean on Me.”

Like Stevie Wonder, Withers spans genres and challenges conventional definitions of R&B. Since his debut album, 1971’s Just as I Am, he has written an astonishing amount of highly personal songs, addressing both personal and political issues. His strong voice remains straightforward, absent of vocal acrobatics yet still evoking passion. Essential Bill Withers includes plenty of familiar tracks, it also reveals some lesser-known treasures that demonstrate why Withers stands as an unparalleled talent.

The two-CD set plucks key tracks from various albums, ranging from 1971 to 1985. Most of the big hits are here, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day,” and the aforementioned “Lean on Me,” just to cite a few examples. Where this collection really shines is in its inclusion of several more deep tracks, songs that did not dent the charts but have withstood the test of time. “My Imagination,” a song off his 1976 disc Naked and Warm, features Withers accompanied only by a keyboard, harp, and guitar. Filled with jazzy chord changes and his smooth yet minimalist singing style, this hidden gem demonstrates why Withers easily collaborated with other jazz artists, most notably Grover Washington, Jr. and the Crusaders.

He also excels at social commentary, often writing songs from the vantage point of a Vietnam War veteran or someone suffering through poverty. A live version of his devastating “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” finds Withers rendering the audience silent with his stark words about a man wounded in combat: “Would you please write a letter, write a letter to my mother? Tell her to tell to tell the family lawyer. Trying to get, trying to get a deferment for my younger brother,” he wails, bluntly expressing his opposition to the war.

Tackling poverty and alcoholism, Withers wrote the shocking “Better Off Dead” from the perspective of a broken man whose family has left him. Who else could compose such devastating lyrics: “You see, I’ve got a drinkin’ problem, all the money that we had I spent. Now I must die by my own hand ‘cause I’m not man enough to live alone. Hey, hey, she’s better off without me and I’m better off dead now that she’s gone.” Only Withers could record such a depressing and dark track while still captivating audiences with his clear, unwavering voice.

Younger listeners may know him best from his 1980 comeback smash “Just the Two of Us,” his gorgeous collaboration with Washington. Besides becoming a huge hit, the song reintroduced Withers to new generations. Thus, the spotlight shone anew on his incredible catalog, and 1980s and 1990s artists covered some of his most famous tracks (e.g. “Lean on Me” by Club Nouveau and “Use Me” by Aaron Neville). However, nothing quite matches the original artist. His last album, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me, is represented here by the Caribbean-infused “We Could be Sweet Lovers” and the slow jam “Something That Turns You On.” The latter song concludes this set, Withers’ voice as powerful as it was in 1971.

Other than starring in the 2010 documentary Still Bill, Withers has seemingly retired from the music business. Hopefully, he will one day decide to grace us with his soulful and honest voice; until then, The Ultimate Bill Withers provides an extensive overview of his best work, ensuring — along with this long-awaited Hall of Fame honor — that these songs will be rediscovered for generations to come.

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