Bill Withers - 1971 – Just As I Am
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It’s street-wise without being jaded. It’s funky without upstaging itself. It’s organic without isolating itself. It’s intimate without being whiny. Just As I Am is soulful in every sense of the word.
A lot can be made about the supporting cast of this album, and truthfully, they do deserve their fair share of recognition. None other than Staxmaster Booker T. Jones produced the album, as well as lending his immense talents to the keyboards. The legendary Al Jackson and Jim Keltner play the drums while jazzman Bobbye Hall Porter supplies additional percussion. Rounding out this studio dream team and supporting Bill Withers on guitar is Stephen Stills. With absolutely no disrespect to the supporting cast though, Just As I Am is simply a Bill Withers album in its purest sense. There is no Bill Withers The Performer or Bill Withers The Star or Bill Withers The Artist (or Artiste) on this album. It’s just Bill Wither the man, and through Just As I Am we get to know him very well.
The soulful singer/songwriter is a rare bird. Most soul singers express themselves through interpretations of other people’s writings, and that’s completely fine (and then some). Bill Withers takes a different approach though, something I think of as the Dock of the Bay approach. Few soul sides can mesh the humble humility of raw soul music with the “come gather ye ’round” storytelling of folk music, but Bill Withers pulls it off a dozen times on Just As I Am. Ten times with originals, and twice with covers.
“Everybody’s Talkin‘” has been done by just about everyone, so it’s a credit to Bill Withers that he can makes the song sound like it was born all over again. Those who like hearing funky interpretations of Beatles songs will love Bill’s version of “Let It Be“. It features a gospel organ, an acoustic guitar, and a testifyin’ Withers. It’s a real celebration.
As for the originals, there is nothing resembling a misstep or an ugly duck in this mix. “Harlem” is the opener and a great indication on what you can expect from Just As I Am, especially how it keeps building itself up without becoming overblown. “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” are deep soul ballads that make themselves very easy to become involved with. They also keep their funky edge while remaining low-key, which is a rare feat. My favourite track is “I’m Her Daddy” which features a start-stop passive-aggressive delivery that goes from merely inquisitive to outright fed up as only Bill Withers could pull off. It’s as powerful a song as I’ve heard out there.
Just As I Am is pure soul, but it also reaches out to the folk and rock community without compromising itself. This is an equally great album for someone looking to build a soul collection of their own but they don’t know where to begin, or for someone who just wants to hear something fresh and original – a real change of pace. It’s as if Bill Withers treated Just As I Am as his one shot at being heard – his one shot at expressing himself – and as such he held absolutely nothing back.