By Don Simpson | March 6, 2010
Directors: Damani Baker, Alex Vlack
The last of six children, Bill Withers was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia – a coal mining town. As a kid, Withers was an asthmatic stutterer (as he puts it, “a less than person”); he just wanted to leave and start over with new people. At age 18 Withers left West Virginia for the Navy, he served as an aircraft mechanic (primarily in Guam) for 9 years. After his stint in the Navy, Withers’ made toilets for airplanes.
Bill Withers once described his introduction to the music industry in an interview as follows: “I saved up some of my own money and recorded myself. I had never written any songs, I didn’t really know how to play anything and I had never sung before. I just decided that it would be awfully nice to be in the music business…I was like 32 years old at the time.” (The fact that Withers had never sung before is untrue, because he did perform – often singing Johnny Mathis covers – in bars while he was stationed in Guam.)
Withers’ demo prompted Clarence Avant of the independent label Sussex Records to sign him to a record deal (with Booker T. Jones as producer). Withers’ debut LP, Just As I Am, was recorded in three sessions (with a six-month break between the second and final sessions). Just as I Am (which features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar) was released in 1971 with the singles “Ain’t No Sunshine” (which was originally a b-side to the grossly underrated a-side “Harlem”) and “Grandma’s Hands.” At the 14th annual Grammy Awards, Withers won his first Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song (“Ain’t No Sunshine”).
In the early 1970s, most record labels were looking for funk acts; but Withers, armed with an acoustic guitar and backed by a minimalist band, preferred to keep things quiet. I have always thought that his music in the early 1970s had much more in common with Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan than James Brown, George Clinton or the Meters. Withers’ first two records (Just As I Am and Still Bill) interest me the most because they are so unique – not only because he was an African-American musician in the early 1970s playing an acoustic guitar, but because of the freedom of structure and composition within his songs. Withers was not a trained guitarist or vocalist, he never learned music theory. On the surface, his songs seem so damn simple; but “Ain’t No Sunshine,” for example, features an unseemly song structure of three verses, no chorus and a bridge that repeats two words (“I know”) for 26 times. Then, in “Harlem,” not only is the rhythm downright relentless (it is simultaneously monotonous and driving), but the consistency of the beat is brilliantly juxtaposed with seemingly random upward key changes that come about every few measures – there is no clear verse-chorus structure here, Withers is creating his own music theory.
It seems Withers does not want to talk about what exactly happened when Sussex Records went under (he mentioned that his tapes were taken by the IRS); and though he has nothing positive to say about Columbia Records, his only negative remark is when he refers to their Caucasian A&R representatives as “Blacksperts.” Withers only seems to want to talk about the good stuff (there is no mention of his brief, yet high-profile marriage to Denise Nicholas of Room 222 fame) – when he discusses his past he successfully avoids talking about his music. (Withers’ music history is discussed in Still Bill via archival interviews.) Withers remains quite stoic and peaceful throughout Still Bill. He turns 70-years old during Still Bill – he is a senior citizen who drives around in a minivan and he’s ok with that.
Written and directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, Still Bill was culled from over three hundred hours of film. Shot over two years, Baker and Vlack’s access to Withers was unparalleled, yet it seems possible that Withers had his say in the content of the documentary (it is just a little too neat and clean). Withers has not made a record since 1985, so it seems a bit too coincidental that during Still Bill Withers decides to enlist guitarist Raul Midon and record “Mi Amigo Cubano” (he also records a song of his daughter Kori titled “Blue Blues”). This footage seems too staged – like a publicity stunt. And by sticking this footage at the end of the film, it leaves the audience wondering if this is why Withers agreed to make this documentary? Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely ecstatic about the idea of Withers releasing new material (especially if it is on his own terms); but I guess I just didn’t expect Still Bill to go in this different direction.
Nonetheless, the archival footage of Withers is a lot of fun to watch and it is very nice to catch up with Withers after all of these years – and to see just how normal he is. Withers truly is…Still Bill.