Saturday, November 16, 2013

Music Reviews-Bill Withers, Luther Allison

Bill Withers
Bill Withers is a West Virginia born musician who is generally placed in the R&B/Soul category. For him though that framework is probably a little limiting. He's a singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist who has a mastery of and familiarity with a lot of different genres. All the same though he also has an extremely distinctive voice and songwriting style that is pretty much immediately recognizable. Much like some musicians such as John Legend or Ben Harper who would come after him and perhaps were influenced by him(?), Withers wrote seemingly intensely personal, often melancholy soul ruminations which were occasionally balanced by more ruefully upbeat songs that veered into more danceable directions. Withers has a smooth and mellow baritone voice but can also sometimes reach into a tenor's range. He is one smooth dude.

Withers provided another example of how blues morphed into soul and R&B in the late sixties and early seventies. Many of his songs had a blues feeling even if they only very rarely followed typical blues lyrical or musical conventions. Withers has said that he found that the usual blues lyrics either bored him or that other people could sing them more convincingly than he could. He always wanted to write his own music anyway. 


Withers' first albums were produced by the Memphis soul musician Booker T. of Booker T. and the MG's. The sessions included musicians such as the Stephen Stills, The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band as well as Booker T and company. Withers had zero interest in dancing around the stage, having the traditional female backup singers or the then ubiquitous horn section. This was relatively unusual for a black "soul" musician. But Withers' music has a strength and vibrancy which didn't require what Withers saw as unnecessary frivolities. When he first started out there was a lot of space in Withers' arrangements. Instrumentation was relatively spare. Withers is a self-taught musician who honed his craft during his stint in the Navy (he joined at age seventeen) and upon his return to civilian life. He did not start to gain fame in the music world until his early thirties. He didn't quit his day job until well after he was established as a musician. Withers evidently had and has little use for (white) experts on the blues who wished to categorize his music or claim he wasn't playing "black enough". In a documentary he responded thusly:
"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."
OK then. =)
I think everyone knows his songs "Lean on Me" or "Ain't No Sunshine". Great works. I love the chilling antiwar anthem "I can't write left-handed." "Who is he..." captures a man's (justified?) paranoia about what his wife has been doing behind his back. "I'm Her Daddy" describes the pain of a father separated from his daughter. I like the Isaac Hayes' cover of "Use Me" better than I do Withers' original. "Just the Two of Us" is probably as close as Withers ever got to adult contemporary pop. It's a good song.  The relatively vituperative (for Withers) "You" and the hopeful "Can We Pretend" both came out on an album released when Withers' marriage with actress Denise Nicholas was breaking up. The self-described extremely private Withers has always resisted and resented simplistic autobiographical readings of his songs. He's pointed out that just because he wrote a song about suicide ("Better off Dead") doesn't mean that he ever considered it. 


In Wither's telling, "You" at least was about an amalgam of people he had known as well as a metaphor of a person's rise to fame and fortune. He denied it was about his marriage saying that a) he was not a fast enough writer to include hints about his marital strife on the then current album "+ justments"  and b) a private person like himself would not put out personal information for the public to sift through. True enough. All the same, "Can We Pretend" was largely written by Nicholas, who has confirmed that it was, from her perspective, in part about their marriage. "Lovely Day" features Withers holding vocal notes for almost 20 seconds while "Harlem/Cold Baloney/Shake Em Down" is a combination of Withers' music and the traditional blues "Shake em on down".

I enjoy singing along with his music on long commutes. If you are only familiar with Withers' more popular works you should pick up some of his early seventies work and give it a listen. The music is deceptively simple stuff that will make you feel better and make you think at the same time. I really like his voice. If you are hip to such singer-songwriters as Dylan, James Taylor, Richard and Linda Thompson, Stevie Wonder, Jon Lucien, Carole King etc. you ought to be aware of Withers' work

It's all over now (duet with Bobby Womack)  You  I'm Her Daddy
Stories   Hope She'll Be Happier   World Keeps Going Around  
Ain't No Sunshine Harlem/Cold Baloney/Shake Em Down (Live at Carnegie Hall)
Who is he and what is he to you  Use Me I can't write left handed  
Lean on Me Lean on Me(Live at Carnegie Hall)  Just the Two of Us 
Better off Dead(Live)  Grandma's Hands  She's Lonely 
The Same Love That Made me Laugh  Can We Pretend Lovely Day






Luther Allison
There is a blues song called "Right Place, Wrong Time" that was written by bluesman Otis Rush and was later a hit for Dr. John. Unfortunately that title applies to the lives and career success of a lot of Black American musicians and Luther Allison was no different. He was born in 1939 and was likely part of the last generation of black bluesmen to see blues as a natural organic outlet for their creativity. He was from Arkansas. Having moved to Chicago with his family in his early teens Allison was tearing it up as a precocious bandleader in the mid to late fifties. He was respected enough by his peers to open for them on occasion or sit in with them in clubs. Famously, blues giant Freddie King turned over a few of his gigs to Luther Allison. Howling Wolf once invited him to sit in. And Wolf didn't extend that invitation to many people.
Despite this respect on the streets Allison wasn't able to get a record deal under his own name until 1969's "Love Me Mama". The release was well received within the declining blues market but what really gave Allison a chance at the big time was his appearance at the late sixties and early seventies Ann Arbor Blues Festivals. Allison was building a sound which was updated electric blues rock with nods towards the funk and soul scenes of the time. He had a quite modern hard edged guitar tone, one which wasn't too different from contemporaries like Duane Allman or Eric Clapton. His version of "Little Red Rooster" for example would not have sounded out of place on seventies era hard rock radio stations. Allison obtained a three record deal at Motown, where I believe he was the only upfront blues artist signed. At Motown, Allison was able to explore a number of options besides straight ahead blues but unfortunately Motown seemingly had little idea how to market him. I think those albums are lost gems but apparently at the time they were released people didn't see it that way. After his record deal with Motown expired Allison bounced around a few other labels. He played the declining black blues circuit in America but wasn't exactly making big bucks.

Fed up with this Allison packed up and moved to France. His music, especially the traditional blues songs, were much more popular in Europe in general and France in particular. He stayed in France for most of his remaining life. In 1994 he recorded a comeback album and moved back to the United States. But not three years after this he discovered he had inoperable lung cancer and passed away. So it goes, I guess. If you like blues I think you will like Luther Allison's music. I would suggest his earlier work before his voice darkened and cracked and he switched to screaming over singing (imo). YMMV. Check out the slide-funk of "Now You Got It"  or his cover of Willie Nelson's "Night Life" for a typical example of his Motown period. I think his version of "Last Night" is a song I would suggest to anyone who wants to know what blues is about. If you don't feel something while listening to that either blues is not for you or you're just dead, which to me is about the same thing. Luther's son Bernard has picked up where his late father left off. He's produced a body of work worth investigating in its own right.

Night Life Last Night
Raggedy and Dirty  Luther's Blues  Don't Start Me Talking  Now You Got It
Bad News Is Coming (Live at Ann Arbor Blues Festival)   Gambler's Blues
Bad Love  K.T  Backtrack Little Red Rooster  Cherry Red Wine
Bad News is Coming (with Bernard Allison)

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