In the early 70s, a refreshing new artist hit the scene singing acoustic r&b/soul. That artist was Bill Withers. He recorded 3 special studio albums for a small indie label, Sussex. He also recorded one live album, “At Carnegie Hall” for the label before moving onto Columbia. At the time, it was rare that a contemporary artist would play in a renowned venue such as Carnegie Hall. Chicago Transit Authority, later renamed simply “Chicago”, would be one of the first non-classical artist to record a live album at Carnegie Hall in the 70s (1971). Bill Withers would do the same almost a year later in 1972. Up until that time, Carnegie Hall was more known for classical recitals and concerts. I bring this up to demonstrate how unique both artists were. Both entities had only 2 or 3 studio albums under their belt, before they took on this ambitious endeavor. The Carnegie Hall dates were an indication of how these artists broke out of the traditional mold of R&B and rock, respectively. And they both happened to be personal favorites. (I remained a faithful Chicago fan for the first 6 albums or so before their sound changed from progressive/jazz rock to Adult Contemporary/pop). Mr. Withers’ Sussex releases had a more organic feel to them. While he continued to enjoy success at Columbia, those releases somehow sounded more polished, which was not necessarily a good thing.
However, “+Justments” would be his final Sussex studio album. It would be important to note that Mr. Withers had defied expectations and married the beautiful Denise Nicholas (Room 222). His once, refreshing, clean cut, everyman image would come under scrutiny due to reports of domestic violence. One beautiful song from the Columbia era, “Hello Its Me” reportedly was about their eventual divorce. But back to “+Justments”, Denise would contribute a self-penned song, “Can We Pretend” that is undeniably my favorite song on this album. For years, I held onto my vinyl copy because it was not available on CD, until now. He would also become embroiled in legal issues with Sussex that would prevent him from recording for several years.
“+Justments” has 4 songs that really make this album special, the aforementioned “Can We Pretend”, “Make a Smile for Me”, “You” and probably the most familiar, “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”. Those songs are filled with unbridled passion and honesty. They are all ballads and showcase Mr. Withers’ strength w/prose and simple, but, memorable melodies. “Can We Pretend” has gorgeous, melancholy lyrics, not to dissimilar to “Hello Its Me”. When you have a broken heart, and you are reassessing a failed relationship, a song like “Can We Pretend” resonates. It is also noteworthy for a splendid guest performance from Jose Feliciano. Mr. Feliciano adds a great, latin flamenco feel bringing a stirring closure to the song. I cannot say enough about its beauty. His acoustic guitar playing may not have been particularly special, but, it complimented his songs very well. He had a knack for storytelling that usually describes some of the best of folk/soul (Think Richie Havens with a more urban feel). If he has a contemporary in today’s world, it may be India.Arie.
He has a very clear, distinctive tonal quality to his voice that can emotes enough to move a listener to tears on songs like “Can We Pretend” and “Make a Smile for Me”. It is another reason he is so celebrated. He is undeniably masculine in his delivery, but, unafraid to show vulnerability.
“+Justments” would hit the Top 10 R&B. However, it failed to make the same crossover impact as his previous releases, peaking at #67 on the Billboard Top 200. “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”, “You” and “Heartbreak Road” would all enjoy Top 15 success on the R&B chart. For a Withers fan, or even a fan of say, India.Arie’s brilliant debut, this is a welcome addition to the CD format and the digital world.
Bill has been very fortunate through the years to have several of his songs covered by many artists ranging from Diana Ross (“The Same Love That Made You Laugh”, “Lovely Day”), Gladys Knight (“I Feel a Song”) to Club Noveau (“Lean On Me”) to being sampled on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity sampling “Grandma’s Hands”. He has all but disappeared from the contemporary music scene. However, he has probably made a very good living off of his unforgettable copyrights.
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.