Bill Withers is certainly an artist I’ve grown with. Especially his non hit material, which never ceases to be wonderful to hear. And is often extremely funky too. In 1978 he released his final album of the decade ‘Bout Love’. It featured on it a song that I first heard recorded and sung by Herb Alpert on his Rise album a year later. When I first heard Wither’s version, it was a bit surprising he’d actually wrote it. As hadn’t paid proper attention to Alpert’ personnel credits. Still its the exact song I’d want to project for this Valentines Day-especially in America. The song is entitled “Love Is”.
Keni Burke of the Five Stairsteps gets the medium paced beat of Russel Kunkel going off with a heavy, rhythmic slap bass riff. Paul Smith adds a high pitched Clavinet (or Clavinet like keyboard) into the mix before the strings and horns kick in playing the main melody along with Withers’ voice. There’s a bridge where the bass and strings scale up before the song essentially builds back up from where it started-with everything building up from a milder sound to a more theatrical one. After another such scaled up refrain, that same pattern builds back up for a third time before the songs finally fades out on itself.
“Love Is” has both the structure of a funk song right on the one musically-with a gospel/folk like chorus-on-chorus melodic content. The funk is assured by Burke’s Larry Graham like slap bass and the overall Sly Stone type groove-mixed in with a healthy dose of disco era lushness with the horns and strings. Wither’s own guitar also plays a wonderfully supplementary role alongside Burke’s bass-especially with its bluesy drawl. Lyrically the call and response lyrics-alternately illustrating both love’s basics and more complex tenants are another aspect of why I love this song.
Holiday’s can be beloved, despised or even abandoned. Depending on the social and political atmosphere of the given time period. Valentine’s Day can be difficult even for those who generally love holidays. Bill Withers song here speaks a good message to such a situation. Suppose that when times of love for one’s individual self seems lacking? Or if someone is unlucky enough to be without love in a somewhat loveless community? Using romantic love as a worldly concept FOR community, empathy, caring and/or spirituality is one of the most positive things a soulful, funky song can offer. Happy Valentines Day!
Bill Withers became a soul/folk icon with his early 70’standards such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”,”Use Me”,”Grandma’s Hands” and his signature song “Lean On Me”. Even in their time,these tunes were popular cover material for different artists across the soul,pop and jazz spectrum. A working class hero who literally demoed his songs and recorded his album (as it’s cover indicates) while employed as an assembler for Douglas Aircraft Corporation,Withers huge early success on the Sussex label evaded him by mid decade. By 1975 he signed to Columbia. And after his debut album Making Music, he released it’s follow up Naked & Warm the next year.
It wasn’t until the release of the documentary film Still Bill in 2009 did I notice any big revival of Withers music beyond his earlier hit period. It would seem his first two Columbia albums were not the major success he would have later in the decade with songs such as “Lovely Day”. Let alone his early 80’s collaborations such as “Soul Shadows” with the Crusaders and the smash of “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. The man wrote his songs across the entire spectrum of soul-concentrating heavily on the down home 12 bar blues form in a similar manner to Gil Scott-Heron. His second Columbia album started right out of the box with another groove called “Close To Me”.
The funky drummer on this song starts right out slowly jamming hard on the one-accompanied by thick chords from the electric piano. This is soon accompanied by accenting percussion from a ringing cowbell before the thick and round synthesized bass line begins popping along with the another of the electric slap bass variety. The song itself sticks heavily to this main theme throughout-with the synthesizer emerging in higher tone generally before Withers’ vocal refrains. There is a brief bridge to the song which features a more sustained electric piano sound before the song begins a very slow fade out with Withers’ vocals going into sensuous talk singing coo.
While Bill Withers classic songs had a live instrumental naturalness that was proto neo soul in tone,this 1976 jam was something very different. His songs had always had a strong funk undertone. But it was here that his funk really emerged fully formed. The structure of the composition is pretty much the same as a “Grandma’s Hands”,”Use Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”. But the slow crawling beat hits right where the funk is supposed to. And the use of big round blurts of mid 70’s synth bass with electric bass slapping adds some heavy thickening of the funky stew this song generates. In a lot of ways,it’s my favorite out and out funk jam from Bill Withers.
Filed under 1970's, Bill Withers, Columbia Records, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Grover Washington Jr., slap bass, Sussex Records, synth bass, The Crusaders, Uncategorized