Bill Withers

Making Music

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It can prove somewhat difficult to place Bill Withers among his peers. Despite a brief revival thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, he will always remain something of an outsider to the soul movement. Starting out as an aircraft mechanic for the Navy, his performing career happened more or less by accident. Surprised to be invited to re-record his own demos -- a modest Withers had intended his songs for others -- he came forth with two brilliant albums chock-full of intriguing stories on mournful alcoholics, adulterers, and his late grandmother's hands. His exceptional talent as a storyteller placed him perhaps more in league with West Coast singer songwriters like Stephen Stills, who helped out on his debut, Just as I Am. A Vietnam chant, "I Can't Write Left Handed," placed him further apart as a socially conscious performer. The accompanying album, Live at Carnegie Hall, makes clear Withers is about total commitment to the music and music alone. Once called "the poet Stax never had" by onetime producer Booker T., his influence on artists like Ben Harper and Erykah Badu is not to be taken lightly. Much of the above can be said about Making Music. Because of the regretful demise of Withers' original label, Sussex, his fifth album was released on Columbia. It possesses the same down-to-earthiness and eye for ordinary day life as his former releases, though the production sometimes trades the organic "feel" for the familiar "end of the '70s slickness." He's excused since at least he didn't turn disco! No dancing across the floor for Bill: friends and family is what remains important to him, as becomes evident from the portrait on the album cover's backside and in songs like "Family Table" and "Don't You Want to Stay." Even when a song does not seem to have a subject but itself ("Sometimes a Song"), Withers and band deliver it with an urgency that would make Barry White shiver. To stay on the subject: instead of White wondering "what he's going to do with you," wouldn't you rather have Withers "Make Love to Your Mind"?

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