Bill Withers sprang from, and came to epitomize, one of America’s great under-sung traditions, a style of laconic expression (see Arthur Alexander or Bobby Hebb or even Mississippi John Hurt) that Black America kept close to the vest until the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement made permanent middle-class respectability seem like more than a pipe dream.
I’m not sure how much of that aspiration-fueled ideal really exists anymore despite considerable economic progress. Money’s a start, but it’s far from everything. But in the moment when progress felt not necessarily real but certainly within reach, Bill Withers was a–perhaps the–key player. He wasn’t just the poor boy made good, or even the coal miner’s son come to conquer the city. He was the one who did all that by honoring tradition without letting anyone fool themselves into thinking he had gone any way but his own.
His voice, whether singing, writing, or playing, was warm without being sentimental. You always knew you were in the presence of someone who saw clearly and had parlayed that clarity into a life that most people who wanted to climb to the middle of the ladder (no further) from the bottom had to lie, cheat or sell their souls for. He made it on talent and, as they say, the content of his cantankerous character.
For about five years in the 70’s there was no one like him. When the business demanded for too long that he go with the rest, he left the business and lived out his days as a kind of Grand Old Man figure.
He passed away this week at 81, with the fight he put up–the fight to be judged by a new ideal–long lost for any but the grifters.
We should not forget how it might have been….what the Revolution was like in his hands.
But the reason the Swampers, and the little Alabama hole in the wall recording studio where they shook the world, were in Muscle Shoals was because Rick Hall, trying to make his mark outside of Memphis, without resorting to Nashville, fetched up there and set up the third point of American music’s great Southern triangle. Rick Hall was Fame Studios and Fame Studios was Rick Hall.
They both ended up being a lot of other things. A whole lot of people contributed. Mostly black artists and mostly white session men with a mix of songwriters, all trying to prove each other to each other in the classic Southern style while George Wallace’s Alabama (where Hall made a point of frequenting local diners in the company of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett) tried to turn back the clock all around them.
But it was Hall’s vision and once he took hold of it Southern Soul and the world it was born to save were never quite the same.
It was from Hall’s place that the careers of Arthur Alexander and Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter and Joe Tex and Candi Staton were launched and those of Etta James and Aretha Franklin (specifically chasing Sledge’s success) were reborn. And that was just the tip of a mighty iceberg. Shamefully, he died without entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (can’t blame the voters for that one–nods to visionary producers and label owners are in the hands of the Hall’s own committee).
Doesn’t matter. I just got the playlist from the Entrance Commission at the Pearly Gates.
I’m hearing it’s the greatest night ever. Smoked Jerry Wexler’s entry party and they’re swearing even Berry Gordy’s gonna have to run to keep up…(The Wilson Pickett cut is live and not to be missed).
Hope your vision comes all the way true where you are now brother….Because it sure is lying in tatters down here.