Mates’ Crates, a series headed up by our friend Andrei Sandu, dives into the tales behind records and digs deeper into our connections to music. This time, the iconic Bill Withers with the iconic "Don't It Make It Better".
Label: CBS | Year: 1978 | Discogs: Bill Withers - 'Bout Love
In a world of Spotify and Apple Music, there's a lot to be said for taking the time out to listen to albums again. But I'd be lying if I said every track on every album was solid gold. Most on "'Bout Love" are though. In particular, "Don't It Make It Better" is uplifting perfection, and "You Got The Stuff" is a regular motivator (alongside the likes of William Onyeabor's "Fantastic Man").
Withers was born in 1938 in the small mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia and served in the Navy for nine years before relocating to LA to start a music career. For a man who set the record for the longest sustained note on a chart hit (holding a high E for 18 seconds on "Lovely Day"), I was surprised to read that he developed a stammer as a child.
While recording self-funded demo tapes and performing them in local clubs, Withers worked as a mechanic for several companies including IBM and Ford. His debut single, "Three Nights and a Morning" (produced by early Moog adopter Mort Garson) went unnoticed at the time but was later reworked into the iconic "Harlem".
His debut album "Just As I Am" (produced by Booker T) scored hits with "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands". Initially reluctant to quit his day job, aware of the fickleness of the music industry, Withers began touring with members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and producing for other artists including Gladys Knight. In 1974 - alongside James Brown, Etta James and B.B. King, Withers performed in Zaire ahead of the historic "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.
When A&R executives repeatedly refused to approve songs for his album (all the more frustrating as they released an educational album by Mr. T), Withers spent the early eighties focused on joint projects including "Just The Two Of Us" with Grover Washington Jr. and "Soul Shadows" with The Crusaders.
These disagreements with label bosses over his sound ultimately led to Withers' retirement in 1985, though versions of his music (including Ben Liebrand's unforgettable "Sunshine Mix" of "Lovely Day") continued to be released. Alongside the three Grammys and six nominations amassed during his performing career, Withers joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Musicians from Sade and D'Angelo to Justin Timberlake, John Legend and Ed Sheeran cite Withers as an inspiration, and his songs have been sampled by Kendrick Lamar, DMX, Eminem, Blackstreet and many more.
So in the week of what would have been his 85th birthday, put on some Bill Withers and have a Lovely Day.
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