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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Still Bill Withers: when all right is wonderful

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"One of the things I always tell my kids
is that it's OK to head out for wonderful,
but on your way to wonderful,
you're gonna have to pass through all right.
When you get to all right,
take a good look around and get used to it,
because that may be as far as you're gonna go."

"I became very interested [in the question],
can I still stay in this business
and be effective and make a living,
and not have to play this fame game?
I wasn't any good at it.
The fame game was kickin' my ass."


"You gonna tell me the history of the blues?
I am the goddam blues. Look at me. Shit.
I'm from West Virginia, I'm the first man
in my family not to work in the coal mines,
my mother scrubbed floors on her knees
for a living, and you're going to tell me
about the goddam blues because
you read some book written by John Hammond?

Kiss my ass."

I was six minutes early for my haircut, so I finished listening to the NPR interview on the car radio with the filmmakers of a new documentary about Bill Withers called "Still Bill" ("Still Bill" is also the name of his second album in 1972). No matter how overplayed "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean On Me" were when I was in high school, I still didn't turn the radio knob back then, and I couldn't turn him off now. The timbre of his voice put me in either a small dark bar or a sunny meadow, depending on the song, the day and what the mood was behind my closed eyelids. His simple lyrics and the way he sang about love made him someone I admired - not from my head, but from my heart. I could never sit still in my mother's kitchen when Dee Dee and I listened to "Use Me" and it even got us up off our butts to finish the dishes. Oh and I smiled through "Lovely Day" and "Grandma's Hands:" Billy don't you run so fast, might fall on a piece of glass, might be snakes there in that grass, Grandma's ha-a-a-ands, sung with nostalgic love. Would I have remembered his quiet songs if you'd asked me a week ago what my top ten favorite songs are? I don't think I would have pulled them out of where they were tucked away from consciousness. But here I was feeling like I'd come home after missing it for too long.

So when I heard that two guys have been making a documentary about him for seven years, I listened eagerly to hear what they had to say about him. Was he for real? You spend seven years with a person and you'll get a clue about whether they're that wise, tender soul behind the simple sweet songs you love. The quotes and descriptions of him the filmmakers talked about confirmed that he is a real guy who is wise from experience and self shaping, uncomfortable with fame and the ways his studio wanted to market him and his music. In a 2005 interview, he talked about CBS Records trying to get him to cover Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" and sexy up his blues with female backup singers. As if he needed added soul like that. That's when he said what he said about being the blues, not selling 'em. Good for him he's managed to live pretty nicely on royalties from his 1970s and 1980s songs, without becoming something he wasn't.

I turned off the radio and went in for my haircut knowing I'll be using that line about taking a good look around all right with my students, because that might be as far as some of them will go. I happen to know from experience that all right can be pretty wonderful. Or maybe it's more like deciding for yourself what wonderful is.

Bill Withers says in this first video of "Grandma's Hands" that it's his favorite of his songs. After that I also posted "Harlem," his first single, which didn't make it big the way the flip side "Ain't no Sunshine" did. In fact, yesterday was the first time I'd heard it.

My photo at the top is of the March 8 New Yorker article about him and the documentary.

I just love hearing his songs again, and I guess I hope he sticks with his version of wonderful and doesn't start touring, unless he really wants to.
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69 comments:

Gwei Mui said...

Hi Ruth another great post. Please swing on by to http://takeawaythoughts.blogspot.com/2010/03/beautiful-blogger.html where your Beautiful Blogger Award is waiting for you to pick up. :)

Helena said...

I've never heard of him before but I already like him. Good lyrics! Genuine.

PS. I really appreciate your comments because my English must be painful for you to read. ;-)

♥ Kathy said...

I absolutely adore Bill Withers and Grandma's Hands is one of my all time favorite songs!

lovely you said...

I read that NPR article the other day and it had me intrigued about the man ( I already love the music) and looking forward to seeing the documentary. But what really got me was when I listened to the must hear snippet of him reciting the "head out for wonderful" advice he gave his children. I really respect that kind of honesty in parenting and in general. As Gensei said," The point in life is to know what's enough..." And I love what you said: "Or maybe it's more like deciding for yourself what wonderful is."

P.S. I'm starting Fugitive Pieces today!

kanmuri said...

I'm not familiar with the singer, but my parents probably are. However I like that quote. All right is ok. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves that we forget to enjoy the things on the way to wonderful!

California Girl said...

I was not familiar with "Grandma's Hands" so I listened to it and love it and it is sooooo Bill Withers. I thought of him recently and wondered if he were still alive. I think I thought of him because I came home late from a mtg last wk and my husband had "American Idol" on and one contestant sang "Lean On Me" and I wondered about him. Such a voice.

He was married to Denise Nicholas from "Room 222" if you remember that tv show from the Sixties? No idea if they are still married but I'll look for the documentary & check NPR archives for the interview. Thanks Ruth!

freefalling said...

Ain't No Sunshine is one of my most favourite songs.
It's so simple yet so heart rending.
Must go and listen to it now.
(i'll be singing it all day).

Vagabonde said...

I did not know the name of this singer but I recognized his voice – a great voice. Isn’t it funny how some artists and some songs will bring you back to an area of your past? You hear just a little song and you are back in school, or with a special friend? Or you remember the first time you heard the song. When I hear Edith Piaf I remember my first job in Paris in a music publishing company. We published some of her music and she would come by often. I also remember England when I hear some early Elvis Priestley as I was in school there the first time I heard his voice. You explain the feeling so well when you say “The timber of his voice put me in either a small dark bar or a sunny meadow…” so true, so nostalgic.

laura said...

I listen to "Lovely Day" about once a week; that and some Al Green tunes lift me up.
Didn't know about the documentary--thanks; I can't wait to see it.

Loring Wirbel said...

I love the anecdote about CBS Records and "In the Ghetto". Good to see people define themselves as much by what they decline to do as what they claim as uniquely their own.

RE Ausetkmt said...

Another Great Post Ruth. Bill is and always will be a one of a kind voice. I will never forget him. it's funny how the stories about his relationship with denise nichols disipated over time. he is a voice that defys time.

C.M. Jackson said...

Ruth

how amazing is NPR and you! loved this ---I am going to start my day heading to wonderful and humming a tune--thanks!

Terresa said...

Love these quotes. They inspire. So glad to have found your blog.

Deborah said...

Great songs, Ruth, neither of which I knew. I didn't know much about Bill Withers either, beyond his hit songs and his wonderful voice, and am pleased to make more of an acquaintance with him. I love the 'all right' quote!!

Peter said...

Yes, we should learn to appreciate the "all right", especially after some less then "all right" episodes that we may all experience! Small moments of "wonderful" is of course welcome now and then!

Thanks for reminding me about the artist; I guess I remembered only "Lean on me" ... and just relistend to it on Youtube.

Susan said...

I heard this interview, too, and was very intrigued by what I learned about him. I'm really looking forward to seeing the documentary. Did they mention when it is coming out? I had to miss part of it.

I had forgotten all about 'Grandma's Hands'. I remember it being played on the radio. It's so honest and full of love. A song like that would never get radio play now.

That quote is something all parents should tell their children and maybe tone down the constant praise that's making so many of them into little egocentric people.

Susan said...

i know i know i know i know ahh i know i know i know...

who else could have pulled that off?
Mr. Smooth.

distracted by shiny objects said...

I heard that interview also. A good one, wasn't it? That man could talk all day long and that would be just fine with me...Good to know he's still around.

dutchbaby said...

I adore Bill Withers - have him on my iPod. "Grandma's Hands" did not make it on his greatest hits album. I'm glad to know it now.

I remember there was a Trivial Pursuit question asking how many times "I Know" was sung in "Ain't No Sunshine".

Shattered said...

Great post! And yes, sometimes all right really is "all right"; perhaps even a better version of wonderful.

Babs-beetle said...

I've never heard Grandma's Hands before. What a lovely song, and I think that my 'all right' is pretty wonderful actually.

Jeanie said...

Fabulous post, Ruth -- and great story. Glad you posted the youTube clips -- I'm going to listen to them right now!

Arti said...

Ruth,

Thanks for introducing me to the person behind that soulful voice. I've always loved 'Ain't no Sunshine' and 'Lean On Me'. but have not heard of the singer's name or these other songs of Bill Withers.

These lyrics are particularly timely, with the Oscars and the Awards Season just passing by:

"I became very interested [in the question],
can I still stay in this business
and be effective and make a living,
and not have to play this fame game?"

A most crucial question every artist should be asking him or herself. Thanks for a soulful post!

Shari Sunday said...

Came back a second time to listen again to "Grandma's Hands"

Oliag said...

...suddenly hearing Bill Withers name everywhere...and I'm glad because I don't think I would have ever heard Grandma's Hands otherwise...Older hands have always been an object of beauty to me...Now I'm on my way to update my ipod:)

His words on "wonderful" and "all right" really hit home, don't they?...I am fine with all right...it is my wonderful.

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, thank you for the BEAUTIFUL BLOGGER honor!

Ruth said...

Helena, Bill. Bill, Helena. He likes you too, Helena.

Silly Helena, your English writing never fails to interest me, and it is very good. Painful is just too far from the truth.

Ruth said...

Cool, ♥ Kathy!

Ruth said...

Lovely, I am fed up with parents who won't accept average children. But really, how is anyone average? You can't really measure people.

Ohh, I hope you like FP. Really, I hope you love it. Please tell me if you do.

Ruth said...

Hi, Kanmuri, beautiful bride. Oh, you made me feel so old. I laughed! But you are probably about my daughter's age, so why should I be surprised?

Ruth said...

California Girl, apparently there is no mention of Denis Nicholas in the documentary. Since I haven't seen it yet, I don't know if that is odd or not.

Ruth said...

Letty, I never ever ever ever get tired of how he opens the song with just his own guitar, and then into the second refrain the other instruments kick in. Maaaaan.

Listening now.

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, well I've never known anyone who met Edith Piaf, at least not knowingly. I agree with you, that certain years of music come back to me as absolutely stellar - and it is because of what was happening in my life then. 1972 was a very very good year for me. I think it might have been the year I was completely free. Was that the year of Neil Young's Heart of Gold?

VaNeSsA said...

Oh Ruth! I am so delighted to discover that we were listening to the same NPR interview the other day. I was driving home from work and let me just say I LOVE BILL WITHERS. I know that "Ain't No Sunshine" has been played and played, but only because it is THE BEST SONG IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC! I am 32 years old, so probably heard Bill Withers for the first time when I was under 10, but let me tell you - I fell in love with him, that song, and the Blues in about oh... 58 seconds, which is about the time he goes into the "I know,I know, I know...I oughta leave young thing alone...." Man, I hope that documentary gets picked up by HBO so that I and the rest of America gets to see it!!

Ruth said...

Laura, I hated having to pick just two songs to post (my own boundaries, of course) because "Lovely Day" is near the top for me too. When he gets to repeating a phrase, it's magic.

Ruth said...

Loring, maybe it was because Bill was 32 when he cut his first hit that he was steady and sure in himself. He was an airplane mechanic. He had dirty hands.

Ruth said...

Hi, RE Ausetkmt. I found some interesting forums about Bill and Denise online. Lots of smack, but as you say, now you don't hear much. It's interesting that they left their relationship out of the documentary. Maybe?

Ruth said...

Thank you, C.M.. Some days I can't bear to listen to NPR - all those war stories. Other days the people stories get me grounded.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Terresa, ditto to you.

Ruth said...

Deborah, the presentation of this man, at this time, is welcome. We need stories of people who avoid the current and express themselves as they wish.

Bella Rum said...

"it's OK to head out for wonderful,
but on your way to wonderful,
you're gonna have to pass through all right."

I loved that quote in its entirety.

I wasn't familiar with "Grandma's Hands" and it was his favorite. I listened and it was beautiful... especially his words about her before he sang it.

Thanks,
Bella

Ruth said...

Peter, I guess when you get to be our age (Withers is a bit older than we) you recognize that most of life is ordinary. If we can enjoy that, we can be very happy. For me, Paris is a sprinkling of the stars. For you, it is ordinary! But I mean only that you live with it daily. You show us it is an extraordinary place.

Ruth said...

Susie, I have "Still Bill" saved on my Netflix queue, and it says release time unknown.

I meet students a lot who seemed to have that constant praise you're talking about. They never fail, the do everything perfectly. Something got mixed up for a whole generation of kids to think they're the most important thing in the world. We can help our kids gain confidence by showing them how to fail and recover.

Ginnie said...

This is when I feel so totally ignorant, Ruth. I did not know the name, Bill Withers, nor the two songs you have showcased here. I didn't even recognise Ain't No Sunshine. I bet you wonder how I got through life thus far! HA! You'll be glad to know that Lean On Me is not only very familiar to me but one of my favorites of all time. I couldn't have told you, however, it was his! (sigh)

shicat said...

Bill.... the memories begin to flow, was i really 17? You know I often think about, what if this is as good as it gets? Well then that's all right with me.

Ruth said...

Susan, the backup instrumentals are so perfect for that song. I love how it builds.

Ruth said...

You're right, Distracted. His voice reassures me. I like it when people are honest. I tire of false niceties. I feel I can trust him. I wonder if that is apt.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, and do you remember how many?

Ruth said...

Oh, Jennifer, all right is sooooooo good. Like your simple square quilts. Oh I feel so happy.

Ruth said...

Babs, that is very good to hear. But I think I already knew you felt that way. It comes through beautifully.

Ruth said...

Hope you enjoy, Jeanie.

Ruth said...

Hi, Arti, I loved your Oscars post, spot on, m'lady. I thought Sandra Bullock came through as the brightest light, in her natural self (well, in a lot of gorgeous makeup, of course). It's interesting to think of her career choices, and how she now attributes her own awakening to her husband's helping her gain confidence. I do admire celebrities who manage to live a pretty real life, whatever that means.

Ruth said...

Hi, Shari, you can really feel what she was to him, can't you?

Ruth said...

Oliag, I wonder how he feels about this renewed interest and fame now. I hope it doesn't disrupt his life too much. He said he didn't really love having these filmmakers around for seven years.

Yes, all right is something to think about. It's nice. Simple. I can expand into it.

Ruth said...

You know, VaNeSsA, you get at something I have always felt. I never wanted to like what everyone else liked. I tried to be different. Sometimes though, when something gets enormously popular, it's just because it's so damn good. But the down side is that we get tired of it. Imagine having to sing "Fire and Rain" at a concert if you're James Taylor. Or listen to it, again. But it's such a great song, and it's sad that you stop hearing it after all this time and play. It's like it just gets worn thin.

Ruth said...

Bella, yep.

Ruth said...

Boots, I'm smiling. You were in a different world, my dear.

Too bad "Lean on Me" is one of those overplayed please-don't-ever-let-me-hear-it-again songs, because it's so good. The lyrics are what we need more of while we watch the world go to hell in a handbasket. Maybe that's why this story of Withers' life is hitting a chord now.

Ruth said...

Cathy, let's dance an all right dance. It's music and art like yours that make the all right wonderful, you know. Human ingenuity. It's all around.

rauf said...

Bill Withers ? no, never heard Ruth, know Pick Withers, 1948 born brit. No relation to Bill, played drums for early Dire Straits. Magic he was Ruth.

rauf said...

Ruth, their third Drummer Terry Williams (Alchemy) was born january 11 1948

Ruth said...

So, rauf, I googled 'musicians born in 1948' and look at what I found, just some:

T-Bone Burnett, Jan. 14 - he just won the Oscar for best original song, the theme from "Crazy Heart" - the movie with Jeff Bridges.

Alice Cooper

Olivia Newton-John

Stevie Nicks

Ted Nugent

Ozzy

Robert Plant

Cat Stevens

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Steve Winwood

Lulu - remember Lulu? She was that blonde girl who sang "To Sir With Love" in the movie with Sidney Poitier.

Ruth said...

Oops, that was supposed to be Ozzy Osbourne, but you probably figured that out.

Ruth said...

Oh! rauf, how did I miss this one:

James Taylor was born in 1948. Oh, it's almost his birthday, March 12.

Susan said...

1948 was a very good year for music lovers.

frank@new york city garden said...

I first heard him say some of these things on the radio show "the sound of young america" (I think!!) last summer. I was struck by his wisdom and sense of f.u.
Thanks for writing it down.

Ruth said...

Susie, yes, I think it was a very good year for all sorts of creative types.

Ruth said...

Hi, Frank, that could be, I didn't hear it. You are welcome, and thank you very much for coming by. I liked having you visit from your New York garden.

Andrew said...

I really enjoyed your post! Will have to check back in to see what else your up to!

Peace

Big Bill Withers fan- musician..

Andrew

Anonymous said...

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that.