Just As I Am by Bill Withers
11 Jul 2022
The 1971 debut album "Just As I Am" by Bill Withers launched him into the success of the music business. It’s an album that was able to show off his soulful voice and prolific songwriting talents.
Ten of the twelve songs are written by Withers with two covers which were the popular "Everybody’s Talkin" by Freddy Neil and the Beatles "Let It Be." This album has all-star musicians all over it with Stephen Stills on guitar, Booker T Jones on guitar, keyboard and who did string arrangements, especially on songs like "Ain’t No Sunshine" which was the well known hit for this album along with "Grandma’s Hands."
The opening track "Harlem" starts the album with a good 70’s groove. It’s a good intro before we hear the well known "Ain’t No Sunshine."
When you listen to the eerie guitar riffs on Ain't No Sunshine by Withers and Stills. It focuses on a singer who can’t seem to find his girlfriend and is lonely without her. Withers claimed he wrote this song based on the movie "Days of Wine and Roses." This is what Withers had to say about the impact that the film had on him. "They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It's like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you. It's just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I'm not aware of." The string arrangements by Booker T bring a melody that adds to the tragedy of how the singer feels. The song was able to make it to number 3 on the charts. This song got Withers a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and earned him a Grammy for best R&B song.
A song like "Grandma’s Hands" focuses on the important role Wither’s grandmother played in his life and when you hear that song the first thought is “Yessss.” I mean what a song. What can I say about this song that hasn't already been said. It’s bluesy, soulful, deep and authentic. You don't get much more real than that and this song really stays true to one’s roots. You know there is something unique about this song once humming from Withers starts and with the use of simple guitar work similar to "Ain’t No Sunshine." I also love how the drums just kick into the song to help emphasize the tone which is bittersweet about reminiscing his grandmother who has now passed on. It is pure poetry that focuses on one aspect of her which would be her hands and how he says “boy they really came in handy.” He looks back on how those hands defined her as the person he knew as a child. The song is an homage to a role model of someone who is no longer around but will never be forgotten. With the love of a family member Withers was able to create a soul classic. However it is a shame it only made it to number 42 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A song that for me is a real ear worm would be "Sweet Wanomi." What was interesting about Withers' choice of topics when he wrote his songs was that he was basing these experiences on speculation and not that much on personal experience when it came to love due to the fact he was in the Navy for 9 years. He might have not lived what he was writing but he could feel it. And a song like "Sweet Wanomi" represents the love and affection you have for someone else. Especially with the repetition of “Sweet Wanomi resting in my arms.” The melody brings a mood of joy and happiness. The song captures beautiful imagery with lines like “a room with soft satin pillows. Cracklin’ fireplaces keeps us warm.” This is also a track where you can hear Stephen Stills's guitar really carry the song.
What I love about Withers is his change of emotions in his songs. Like you hear a song about loving someone with a song like "Sweet Wanomi" and then the mood switches when a few tracks later you hear a song like "I’m Her Daddy." This song has a dark feel about the man in the song who reconnects with a woman named Lucy that he had a one night stand with and finds out she had a six year old daughter that he is the father of.
The man in this song is upset by the news that he isn’t in her life and wants to meet her. The instrumentation brings a bluesy vibe of depression due to the fact he has no connection with her yet seems to want to be in her life. He has a lot of questions about how she is living. The line “did you give her one of my pictures?” makes him curious if she knows anything about him.
The way Withers delivers the line “see that man that’s my daddy” brings a lot of heartbreak and trouble in his voice realizing this major event in his life. And even how he says “you should have told me Lucy” makes us realize he wants to be involved and also makes us wonder about his love for Lucy.
I love that each song has a distinct mood and are not all about the glory of love. I do happen to appreciate and am fascinated by the dark songs of romance like "I’m Her Daddy" but I find the disturbing song "Better Off Dead" very interesting. This song is about a man who has an issue with alcoholism and his wife decides to leave him with their kids.
He mentions how she tried to help him but he couldn’t stop his bad habits. He realizes he doesn’t want to live without her. He focuses on her unhappiness with him. A line that emphasizes their tough marriage would be “she’d sit and cry while I went out and pawned the things we owned.” What I love about this song is that there is a clear story that could be a movie or a play about a struggling married couple.
I also love how Withers who was not married at the time and never was would be able to capture a dark situation that could unfortunately be the case for a specific family. I absolutely am engaged with the dark choice of symbolizing suicide by ending the song with the sound of a shotgun after the line “she’s better off without me and I’m better off dead” is used. It also is a different and interesting way to end an album. Especially a debut album.
This album was able to help Withers receive a grammy nomination as Best New Artist of 1971. This album was able to reveal to the world who Bill Withers was and was able to be the start of something new for him and the rest of the world. Not bad for someone who had little music experience prior to this album.