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Lean On Him: Bill Withers’ “Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters” Box Coming in October

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Bill Withers announced himself to the world in 1971 in typically understated fashion.  He stood beside a plain brick wall, holding a lunch pail on the front cover photograph of Just as I Am.  It offered no indication as to the fiery music contained within its grooves, from the plain-spoken, gut-wrenching “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the tender and moving “Grandma’s Hands.”  Withers was clearly a singer/songwriter with whom to be reckoned.  But did stardom suit Bill Withers?  His follow-up album was titled Still Bill, as if to assuage fears that the real man had disappeared with the first blush of fame.  More hit records followed, including the smoothly soulful “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. in 1980.  But before 1985 was out, Bill Withers had released his last studio album to date, leaving behind nine passionate LPs.  Now, for the very first time, all nine of those recordings will be assembled in one definitive box set.

Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters arrives from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings on October 30, the same date similar complete collections are released from jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Charlie Christian and Duke Ellington.  It will be available both at Sony’s PopMarket and at general retail. The 9-CD box set will include each and every one of Withers’ studio and live albums, all newly remastered from the original analog tapes by Mark Wilder:

  1. Just As I Am (Sussex, 1971),
  2. Still Bill (Sussex, 1972)
  3. Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall (Sussex, 1973) (2 LPs on 1 CD)
  4. +’Justments (Sussex, 1974)
  5. Making Music (Columbia, 1975)
  6. Naked & Warm (Columbia, 1976)
  7. Menagerie (Columbia, 1977)
  8. ‘Bout Love (Columbia, 1979)
  9. Watching You Watching Me (Columbia, 1985)

As is customary with Legacy’s Complete Albums Collection box sets, each album is packaged in a replica mini-LP sleeve reproducing that LP’s original front and back cover artwork.  The new booklet includes complete discographical information for each album, along with an introduction to the box set written by Bill Withers.  An essay originally written by the artist on the occasion of the Legacy CD reissue of Just As I Am has also been retained.  In addition, complete notes originally written for various LPs at the time of their release (such as Live At Carnegie Hall, +’Justments, Making Music, and Naked & Warm) have also been included.  Lastly, the booklet features a new, 1,500-word essay from Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a Political Analyst on MSNBC.  The Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters has been produced by Leo Sacks (Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look: Complete on Columbia and much more).

Hit the jump for more on Withers’ legendary career and this new box set, including the track listing and an order link!

Born in 1938 in West Virginia, Withers served for nine years in the U.S. Navy.  Upon his 1965 discharge, the pragmatic Withers continued to work in the aircraft business even while increasingly pursuing an extracurricular interest in making music. A number of fortuitous occurrences led to Withers being introduced to Clarence Avant of independent Sussex Records, who in turn brought Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MGs, to Withers. Jones was signed to produce the album that became Just as I Am, and brought along compatriots like Al Jackson and the recently-departed Donald “Duck” Dunn to contribute musically. Adding a unique and familiar sound to the album was the guitar of Stephen Stills, with whom Jones had recently worked.  Stills’ presence was quite a luxury for a young and untried singer/songwriter!

But Sussex Records’ gamble with Withers paid off. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” off the debut album, sold over one million copies, went Top 10 and netted the singer a Grammy Award. This was clearly meant to be; the album’s opening cut “Harlem” was the intended single, but prescient DJs turned the 45 over, preferring the scorching funk and passion of “Sunshine” instead. Follow-up album Still Bill in 1972 yielded two more million-sellers: “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” Legal issues with Sussex soon arose, delaying the artist’s third long-player until 1974.  Withers then signed to a major, Columbia Records, and Columbia brass also purchased his back catalogue from Avant.

Four albums appeared on Columbia between 1975 and 1978 though none scaled the heights of his first two collections. 1979’s ‘Bout Love teamed Withers with keyboardist, arranger and songwriter Paul Smith, but it would be overshadowed by a single release one year later:  “Just the Two of Us” soared as a duet with Grover Washington, Jr. in 1980. Appearing on the saxophonist’s album Winelight, “Just the Two of Us” revitalized Withers’ career and won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.  It hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Bout Love might have planted the seeds of retirement for Withers; he didn’t return until 1985 with a new effort.  That year, Withers recorded Watching You, Watching Me, which contained the Top 40 R&B hit “Oh Yeah.” As of this writing, the LP remains Withers’ final studio statement. In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy award nomination and in 1988 his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for Club Nouveau’s recording of “Lean on Me.”

Withers has kept a low profile for the past two decades, although he emerged to contribute two songs to Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 album License to Chill. Younger generations and contemporaries alike have continued to discover his music, record new versions of his compositions, and even sample his tracks.  A sample of “Grandma’s Hands” was heard on 1996’s “No Diggity” by BLACKstreet featuring Dr. Dre.  “No Diggity” earned Withers a No. 1 Pop and R&B hit, and also won a Grammy Award. The very same year, Me’Shell Ndegéocello revived “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” on Peace Beyond Passion, while Withers’ original recording appeared one year later on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.  The Withers renaissance has truly never abated.

The Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters arrives on October 30, and it can be pre-ordered at the link below!

Bill Withers, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters (Columbia/Legacy 88697 89467 2, 2012)

CD 1: Just As I Am (Sussex 7006, 1971)

  1. Harlem
  2. Ain’t No Sunshine
  3. Grandma’s Hands
  4. Sweet Wanomi
  5. Everybody’s Talkin’
  6. Do It Good
  7. Hope She’ll Be Happier
  8. Let It Be
  9. I’m Her Daddy
  10. In My Heart
  11. Moanin’ and Groanin’
  12. Better Off Dead

CD 2: Still Bill (Sussex 7014, 1972)

  1. Lonely Town, Lonely Street
  2. Let Me In Your Life
  3. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)
  4. Use Me
  5. Lean On Me
  6. Kissing My Love
  7. I Don’t Know
  8. Another Day To Run
  9. I Don’t Want You On My Mind
  10. Take It All In And Check It All Out

CD 3: Live at Carnegie Hall (Sussex 7025, 1973)

  1. Use Me
  2. Friend Of Mine
  3. Ain’t No Sunshine
  4. Grandma’s Hands – With Rap
  5. World Keeps Going Around
  6. Let Me In Your Life – With Rap
  7. Better Off Dead
  8. For My Friend
  9. Can’t Write Left-Handed
  10. Lean On Me
  11. Lonely Town, Lonely Street
  12. Hope She’ll Be Happier
  13. Let Us Love
  14. Medley: Harlem / Cold Baloney

CD 4: +’Justments (Sussex 8032, 1974)

  1. You
  2. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
  3. Stories
  4. Green Grass
  5. Ruby Lee
  6. Heartbreak Road
  7. Can We Pretend
  8. Liza
  9. Make a Smile for Me
  10. Railroad Man

CD 5: Making Music (Columbia 33704, 1975)

  1. I Wish You Well
  2. The Best You Can
  3. Make Love To Your Mind
  4. I Love You Dawn
  5. She’s Lonely
  6. Sometimes A Song
  7. Paint Your Little Picture
  8. Family Table
  9. Don’t You Want To Stay?
  10. Hello Like Before

CD 6: Naked & Warm (Columbia 34327, 1976)

  1. Close To Me
  2. Naked & Warm (Heaven! Oh! Heaven!)
  3. Where You Are
  4. Dreams
  5. If I Didn’t Mean You Well
  6. I’ll Be with You
  7. City of the Angels
  8. My Imagination

CD 7: Menagerie (Columbia 34903, 1977)

  1. Lovely Day
  2. I Want To Spend the Night
  3. Lovely Night For Dancing
  4. Then You Smile At Me
  5. She Wants To (Get On Down)
  6. It Ain’t Because Of Me Baby
  7. Tender Things
  8. Wintertime
  9. Let Me Be the One You Need

CD 8: ‘Bout Love (Columbia 35596, 1979)

  1. All Because Of You
  2. Dedicated To You My Love
  3. Don’t It Make It Better
  4. You Got The Stuff
  5. Look To Each Other For Love
  6. Love
  7. Love Is
  8. Memories Are That Way

CD 9: Watching You, Watching Me (Columbia 39887, 1985)

  1. Oh Yeah!
  2. Something That Turns You On
  3. Don’t Make Me Wait
  4. Heart In Your Life
  5. Watching You Watching Me
  6. We Could Be Sweet Lovers
  7. You Just Can’t Smile It Away
  8. Steppin’ Right Along
  9. Whatever Happens
  10. You Try To Find A Love

Written by Joe Marchese

August 29, 2012 at 12:48

5 Responses

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  1. Great news that this set is remastered – as all the albums are available in some form or another elsewhere.
    Pity that the 45 “USA” has not been included – taking “guff from Iran” is as topical now as it was then.
    Given the slew of boxed sets from Legacy – is the Taj Mahal one going to be remastered as well? Giant Step is long overdue for this treatment.

    Mike Williams

    August 29, 2012 at 12:55

  2. Mr. Marchese, do we know if the classic “Live At Carnegie Hall” has been restored to its former glory? The existing CD is truncated in certain sections (most notably during the “rap” on the intro to “Let Me In Your Life”), obviously done to fit the double LP onto one disc. But for many a Black child, that LP took the place of church on Sunday mornings, so ANY omission (even just a sentence) is glaring.

    Eric M. Vaughnes

    August 29, 2012 at 14:06

    • Thanks for reading, Eric. I’ll see what I can find out!

      Joe Marchese

      September 1, 2012 at 00:24

  3. Leaving off all the bonus tracks from “Menagerie” (including the excellent “Rosie”), none of the “Man and Boy” soundtrack tracks he appeared on, no “USA” and no 12″ remixes from the era (or beyond)…MAJOR FAIL! There easily could’ve been an extra disc to truly make it “Complete” as advertised.


    August 30, 2012 at 16:12

  4. I’m pretty sure “Just the two of us” never appeard on “Bout Love”… I think they included it on the recent cd issue but it was definitely a Grover Washington number feat Bill on vocals

    Alex Stassi

    September 2, 2012 at 07:30

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