Like many of you, I was sad to hear about the passing of Bill Withers. He was one of those musicians who cut their own distinctive musical path with a unique singing voice and an instantly recognisable musical style. His songs were so deeply heartfelt that their messages still echo down the years.
His genius was to take a simple theme – happiness, loneliness, infidelity – and make it fresh and engaging. His biggest hit, Lovely Day, was a perfect example. Personally, it’s not my favourite, but it struck a chord with millions and long after it left the charts, radio stations would play it to herald the first sunny days of spring.
But he had so many other great tunes: Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine and Who Is He (And What Is He To You)? Anyone would be proud to pen even one song of that calibre.
My personal favourite – Better Off Dead – is one of the darkest tunes he (or anyone else) ever produced. The lyric is a short story confessional of a man coming to terms with his alcoholism and the harm it caused his family. The shifting, uneasy rhythm is like the fidgeting of someone on the verge of a rash act.
I never met the man himself, but I got close.
Back in the eighties, my band turned up at our regular rehearsal studio near Old Street in London, only to find there was no available space. Bill and his band had booked the big room for an extended period to prepare for some shows. However, for some reason, they hadn’t shown up that evening.
After some negotiation, the studio agreed to let us use the room, providing we put everything back exactly where Bill’s band left it. So, we cleared all their kit to the outside of the room and set up inside it. This took a lot of time and trouble and I hope we got it right because the whole point of block-booking a studio room is being able to arrive and get straight to work.
Anyway, we did our rehearsal and I thought no more about it. Until, some time afterwards, we were back at the studio again. And all you could hear was the refrain, “Lovely Day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day.” Bill’s band was in that evening all right and, I swear, their rendition sounded exactly like the record itself.
It still wasn’t one of my favourites, but it made us all smile that day.
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