Five Good Covers: Use Me (Bill Withers)

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

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There’s talk that “Use Me,” from Bill Withers’ second album Still Bill, is about his relationship with his future wife (and, a year later, ex-wife), Hollywood actress Denise Nicholas. Withers denies this, saying he got the idea for the song before his first album, while he was still making toilets for $3 an hour. Most listeners didn’t care about its origin – they were too busy digging that funky clavinet, nodding along to lyrics that brush against masochistic tendencies while defiantly stating that one could be willing to take the bad with the good, because that good was so good. It sure felt good, especially the Live at Carnegie Hall version, so deep in the pocket that the clapping-along audience doesn’t want it to end, demanding (and getting) an immediate encore.

“Use Me” has gotten a lot of cover versions over the years; it seems that a lot of artists know what it’s like not to mind being manipulated. Many approaches from many genres have proven its message to be strong no matter how it’s expressed or who’s expressing it. Two of the following five covers are jazz-based. Four of them are by women. And all five sound very, very good.

MP3: Nicole Henry – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Miami-based singer Nicole Henry is well-versed on all the usual jazz classics, but on her live album So Good, So Right, she takes her talents to New York City and uses them on popular songs from the ’70s. Her “Use Me” is on fire, giving off smoke and heat in equal measures.

MP3: Patricia Barber – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Patricia Barber’s a jazz singer as well, but she comes at “Use Me” from a different angle than Henry, much slower and darker. Maybe that’s the difference between Miami and Chicago, Barber’s beat, but Barber proves that the song works just as well in the shadows as it does in the light.

MP3: Holly Golightly – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Holly Golightly takes “Use Me” far, far from its soul roots and sets it down on the border of surf and rockabilly. It’s strange to hear it sounding like a refugee from a ’60s beach movie, but Holly could definitely be the movie’s tough-but-vulnerable girl who kicks sand in the bad guy’s face at the end.

MP3: Jim White – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
Starbucks’ Sweetheart CD releases have gotten a lot of exposure for a lot of lesser-known artists covering a lot of good love songs, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Jim White got the chance to showcase his backwoods-country sound on Sweethearts 2005, turning “Use Me” into a soundtrack for a Flannery O’Connor short story.

MP3: Grace Jones – Use Me (Bill Withers cover)
With 1981’s Nightclubbing, Grace Jones completed her self-reinvention, transitioning from disco maven to avant-new wave artist. With the considerable talents of Sly & Robbie behind her, she similarly reinvented “Use Me,” giving it a spare dub sound that sounds like it was created by Rasta robots.

The original “Use Me” is available in studio and live versions on Amazon.

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  1. The first one is too gimmicky. #2 puts me to sleep. #3 is a joke. #4. is ok after a bad start. #5 is a good cover. Grace got it.