From the moment he first appeared on the charts, Bill Withers had a maturity about him that was rare in show business. Not just in age – he was thirty-two when his debut album Just As I Am was released – but in pragmatism; he kept his job at the Boeing aircraft factory even as “Ain’t No Sunshine” was making its way into the top ten, just in case he was thought of as a flash in the pan. He needn’t have worried. His songs resonate just as strongly today as they did when he first set them down.
Withers turns 74 today, and we’re celebrating Slab Fork, West Virginia’s most famous native with a look at a few of his greatest hits, in other hands.
MP3: Freddie King – Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover)
When a song expresses a truly universal belief, it’s bound to attract dozens of covers, if not hundreds, and in scores of different styles; “Ain’t No Sunshine” makes a fine case in point. Withers’s breakthrough song is bluesier than ever in the hands of the Texas Cannonball, Freddie King.
MP3: Ida Sand – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Jazz vocalist Ida Sand gives “Use Me” a different kind of funk than Withers did; where his smolders, hers cools. Either way, the message of the song, which might sound unsettling in a conversational context, becomes both effective and persuasive.
MP3: Me’Shell Ndegeocello – Who Is He (And What Is He To You) (Bill Withers cover)
In addition to having the best use of “dadgummit” since Walter Brennan, Withers’s “Who Is He” is a case study about the birth of a notion, as we witness a seed of distrust taking root in the singer’s head. Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s suspicious mind is supported by nervous strings and a groove that will have you looking at other parties out of the corners of your eyes.
MP3: Cold Blood – Kissing My Love (Bill Withers cover)
Imagine Tower of Power backing Janis Joplin and you’ve got Cold Blood, an early-’70s rock/jazz/blues combo with a powerhouse vocalist in Lydia Pense. Somehow they never got the success they deserved, but at least that makes them all the more fun to discover. Check out their cover of “Kissing My Love,” which takes the fun of the original and adds a K at the end.
MP3: Aretha Franklin – Let Me In Your Life (Bill Withers cover)
The Queen of Soul was a natural (woman) to cover Bill Withers, and with her performance on the title track of 1974’s Let Me In Your Life, she doesn’t disappoint. Recommended for those who want to advocate for a rebound relationship.
The documentary Still Bill, which updates us on what and how Withers is doing nowadays, is available on Amazon.