This week’s Artist In Focus is the one and only, Bill Withers.
The late great is the cover star on our grade 4 ukulele book, though this is far from his greatest achievement…
Bill and the Everyday
Withers was not shy of hard work throughout his life. Contrary to the prevalent narrative of the troubled artist - wrestling with their gift from a young age amidst solitude and an empty bank balance – Bill joined the army for 9 years prior to his career as a musician. Even when he finally embarked on his musical journey (he was almost 30 years of age by then!), he refused to give up his job at an aircraft corporation factory line as he believed the music industry to be untrustworthy. This was during the recording of his debut album, Just As I Am, the front cover of which is Bill standing outside his workplace, lunch box in hand.
In an article for the New York Times, Giovanni Russonello says that “Withers reminded us that it’s the everyday that is the most meaningful: work, family, love, loss.”, and we think this sums up Bill’s attitude to life and music perfectly.
Bill’s hit track “Use Me” is included in our new ukulele grade 4 syllabus. The song is incredibly rhythmic, with a repeated bass figure and drums that feel like they’re about to stumble over themselves at any moment! We’ve translated this rhythmic and percussive feel into the ukulele part, using fretting hand muting skills to achieve this. The lyrics talk of a bad romance that is both addictive and difficult to leave, and the instrumentation truly captures that feeling of desire, both for the love and the loss.
“Use Me” was originally included on the 1972 album Still Bill. The song was a huge success and reached number 2 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart after its release. It also ranked number 78 on Billboard’s best songs of 1972.
Other smash hits of Bill’s include: “Lean On Me” (featured in Piano Debut), “Just The Two Of Us” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (featured in Guitar Debut), all of which received a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. “Lovely Day” is another one of his most popular releases, from his 1977 album Menagerie, most notable for the record-breaking sustained note at the end of the song. Withers managed to hold that high E for 18 seconds, which is thought to be the longest in any American chart hit.
Bill sadly passed in March 2020, but his soul-legacy will live forever. His effortless baritone vocals and vibrant arrangements are unmistakeable, and his music has become firmly embedded in cultural history. Bill’s songs are some of the most covered of all time, with “Ain’t No Sunshine” being in the top 50.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Bill once said that “you don’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself”, and what a wonderful message that is. It says that you needn’t be worried about whether you’re good enough, or technical enough, or the best in the game. You simply need to start.
Have a listen to one of Bill’s-best below. Yep, just a modest 301 million streams on Spotify for this track.