Earning the Songs of Bill Withers

Vocalist José James finds himself by getting lost in the music of Bill Withers

Jose James performing the music of Bill Withers at the Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Adam Kissick/Newport Festivals)

Things are a little tense backstage midway through the big opening night concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, held at the International Tennis Hall of Fame stadium. The Pat Metheny band has just finished its set playing some of his most popular material. José James, a gifted and acclaimed singer but not widely known, at least compared to a jazz star like Metheny, is about to close the night with his own set. Large numbers of fans seem to be leaving the stadium—whether to grab a drink or go to the restroom or actually go home, it’s not clear. Festival director Jay Sweet, worried that the very well-dressed audience might be disappearing into the Newport night, asks artistic director and noted raconteur Christian McBride to go up and do 10 minutes or so of something—comedy, commentary, whatever—while James’ group sets up to play. McBride hustles onstage and tells some jokes and a few stories, but it comes across more like open-mic night at the Comedy Cellar. (Note: McBride is now working on a good five minutes.)

Moments later, dressed in vintage ’70s garb like a cross between Prince and Hendrix, James strolls out onstage strumming his acoustic guitar as the band kicks into “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The reaction is sudden and visceral. The audience is immediately singing along, clapping and altogether captivated. Well-dressed folks return to their seats. Crisis solved. Bill Withers’ music to the rescue, delivered by a dynamic singer backed by a tight and road-tested band.

James has been performing material from the Bill Withers songbook almost exclusively for the last year or so and, in reverse of the usual album-then-tour sequence, he’s releasing the album Lean on Me on Blue Note on Sept. 29. Judging from the response from live audiences, the album is certain to strike a chord with a wide range of music listeners of all ages. Withers’ music is both timeless and of an era, yet James somehow manages to make it sound contemporary.

Produced by Blue Note exec Don Was, the album features all of Withers’ hit songs, plus one underappreciated tune, “Better Off Dead.” The arrangements don’t veer far from the originals but James puts his own unique stamp on all of them, so this is no karaoke compilation. The band on the album includes keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Bradley Allen Williams, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer Nate Smith, with cameos by saxophonist Marcus Strickland and vocalist Lalah Hathaway. For live shows, Takeshi Ohbayashi plays keyboards and Ben Williams fills the bass role. On record and live, it’s Smith who drives the band forward with his crisp in-the-pocket licks, somehow channeling the work of Withers’ underrated drummer James Gadson, particularly on the quirky but distinctive rhythms of “Use Me.”

Like the Diana Krall and Tony Bennett duet album Love Is Here to Stay recently released on Verve, Lean on Me seems like a sure bet for a Grammy nomination, if not a win. It’s just a question of the category: jazz, R&B, pop…who knows? Like Withers himself, the album is very much beyond category. He was a singer/songwriter with soul who walked away from the music business in the mid-’80s, never to perform or record again. Withers will celebrate his 80th birthday in 2019 in quiet obscurity in Southern California. Or maybe it won’t be so quiet. James considers it his mission to make people remember this man who was an overnight success, had one hit song after another during the ’70s, and then gave it all up.

Although he looks like a 20-something, James, 40, is no overnight success. Lean on Me is his eighth album as a leader, all recorded for Blue Note. He told me that when he first came on the scene he was inexplicably compared to Gil Scott-Heron, but as he makes clear in our conversation, he was more influenced by Bobby McFerrin, whose arrival on the scene occurred during James’ formative years and whose improvisational vocal hijinks captured the young singer’s imagination. Like McFerrin, James relies on jazz as his foundation, but is not bound by the genre.

On a very rainy Saturday following his opening-night performance at Newport, James sat down backstage inside Fort Adams to talk about Bill Withers and the challenges and rewards of getting the soon-to-be octogenarian’s music right. –LEE MERGNER

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JazzTimes: Ever since your first album, you’ve had to deal with the question of “Is it jazz?” or “Are you a jazz singer?” This album won’t help with that.

José James: On the way here driving from Dartmouth, we [Brad Allen Williams, Ben Williams, Nate Smith, and Takeshi Ohbayashi] played the game of Top Five: Who are the Top Five in jazz on your instrument in three categories—first, who do you think are the top five most influential for the art form? Second, who influenced you personally? And three, who are the most influential modern artists? We considered “modern” from the ’80s on, so if they recorded in the ’70s they were out. That last category was tough for me because a lot of singers who were heroes to me, like Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee [Bridgewater], and people like that have been doing it a long time. The primary one for me was Bobby McFerrin. The Voice, that concert album, was so influential for me. I tried to learn all that stuff.  Impossible, really.

There aren’t many male jazz vocalists out there now.

Depending on how you define it, no. There’s Kurt Elling, Gregory Porter, Jon Batiste, Freddy Cole, Andy Bey, Theo Bleckmann, Sachal Vasandani … Do you know Michael Mayo? I think he’s the male jazz vocalist of the future.

On the way up here, we were listening to Monk and it was so refreshing.  You realize that the second that jazz tunes got lyrics, it sounded corny. It’s about time and place.

I think Kurt Elling is doing a great job with lyrics and songwriting. Same with René Marie.

That’s the next great hurdle for us as jazz artists and vocalists, I think.  Writing great songs.

Speaking of great songs and songwriters, let’s talk about Bill Withers. Do you remember the first time you heard Bill’s music?

No, I can’t remember not hearing him. He was always on the radio. Always. He’s one of those few rare people like Carole King or Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel who did his own songs that were hits.

So many hits. An incredible track record. And about every song on your record was a hit for Bill, except “Better Off Dead.”

That one was not a hit, right. It was sort of a cult favorite. That was the Pulp Fiction of Bill Withers [laughs]. Some of them were super hits or even megahits, like “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Lean on Me.”

How did you get into this project?

About five years ago, I had been touring and singing “Trouble” from [James’ 2013 album] No Beginning, No End. That was sort of the signature song of that record. It’s a Sly Stone sort of groove and we’d jam out at the end. I do a kind of human DJ [replicating remixing and scratching vocally] where I’d remix songs. We’d do “Love and Happiness” and remix that or a Marvin Gaye song like “Distant Lover” or a Bill Withers song. But then the Withers part became its own segment with a medley of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?” As that grew, it became a festival thing—a 20-minute tour de force piece. It was awesome. People loved it and it was unexpected.

Why don’t more people, pop or jazz, cover Bill’s music?

He’s interesting because if you look at Carole King, she had a career as a songwriter first and she hadn’t planned on performing her material. Famously, James Taylor pushed her into the limelight. With Bill, they both happened at the same time with one song. He came out of nowhere with a hit record. He wasn’t in the trenches gigging for 20 years. His first gig was on Johnny Carson. He was working in the Boeing factory and he wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine” and it went insane. The next thing you know, he’s on The Tonight Show. It’s a true American dream story. For him, you have a catalog like that all sung by him. And he’s unquestionably black and country. Would you ever cover Al Green?

Actually, Bill is one of the most covered artists ever. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the top three covered songs of all time. And he’s been sampled a lot. On the performing side, he stopped performing live around 1985 or so, about the time of his last recorded album.

Meeting Bill [recently], he feels very forgotten by the industry. He knows his worth, but I don’t think he understands how much his music really means to all of us. He’s not as plugged in as other people seem to be, like Joni Mitchell. She influenced James Blake’s writing and she went to see him at the Troubadour [L.A. club]. Bill is in it, but not of it. He’s staunchly anti-music business, which I get, and he doesn’t want to play the game. And he’s very reclusive. You put all those things together, and …

Why do you think he hasn’t been recognized as one of our great singer/songwriters? By both white people and African-Americans? How much of this is about race? 

I think it’s more that he doesn’t play the game at all. At all. Even with the Rock Hall of Fame thing [Withers was inducted in 2015], he didn’t sing at all. You got John Legend, a whole band and Stevie Wonder, and he sat down, like “Stevie can sing my song.” You’ve got to admire that. He’s the only artist I’ve ever met who I can say, “He really doesn’t care about being famous at all.” Some people say that they don’t care, but they care. He’s the only artist in maybe the entire music business who got to that level and said, “Fuck it, I’m done.” And he was really done. Not “This is my farewell tour.” None of that. He’s the anomaly, and it makes people uncomfortable on so many levels.

Right, you’re rejecting our love, our money, everything.

Exactly, he’s literally a black man who can’t be bought. Or even an artist that can’t be bought. He has no price. That’s pretty crazy.

What do you think was unique about him as a songwriter?

One of my mentors is a poet, Louis Alemayehu from the band Ancestor Energy, and he was analyzing Bill’s lyrics and he said that you could tell that Bill grew up in the country because there’s so much nature in the songs. “Crystal raindrops fall,” “…the morning sun,” “…the morning dew,” “When I wake up in the morning, the sunlight hits my eyes.” It’s very rural. Even when he writes about some urban stuff like Harlem, it’s about a country person’s experience in the city. “Summer nights are so hot.”

He is a product of the Great Migration.

He was from Slab Fork, West Virginia, probably with a population of about 1,000 then. Now it’s about 300.

Coal country. That can get you out of town.

He did nine years in the Navy, so that should tell you everything. “I’m out, I’m done.”

When did you reach out to him personally?

I was trying to whittle the songs down because originally this was conceived as a live show, a tribute to happen during his 80th birth year. I was a little nervous, rightly so, about doing a tribute album in general, because there are so many and a lot of them suck.

That’s built in with tributes, because if the subject is worthy enough for a tribute, then they’re probably pretty great, and how are you going to top great?

Exactly. I wouldn’t have done it on my own, with myself producing it or someone my own age producing, because I don’t think Bill’s music is the kind of music that you can or should take apart and put back together and reharmonize, like J Dilla and Herbie. Herbie Hancock’s stuff is more flexible because it’s instrumental and in a way you can do whatever you want with it. Because he’s so broad. A song like “Lean on Me” just wants to be “Lean on Me.” That’s it. If you do too much with it, then it’s not “Lean on Me.” Same with something like “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Don heard about the show and project and he said, “I gotta have that album.” I said, “Man, I just don’t know.” He said, “Look, I think it’s going to be awesome and it will sound great.” I said, “Well, if you produce it, then I feel comfortable.” Because he lived it and he knew it. That’s how it happened. The band is half my live band and half guys from my No Beginning, No End recording.

I think that Nate Smith, the drummer, is a key to the success of the album. He really makes things click.

I agree. It’s hard to play that rhythm correctly. It’s an art. That James Gadson thing. It can’t be wrong.

How did the band influence the arrangements?

The studio guys just came in and did it, often in one take. I feel like we all know Bill’s stuff in this cool way. He’s in this place where blues, soul, jazz, and pop meet.

How did you walk that line between faithfully covering the material and bringing your own stamp to it? It’s a challenge because you don’t want to sound exactly like him, but …

…you don’t want to sound not like him too. Yeah, I was nervous about it. Going back to meeting him, the first song list was 60 tracks, because he has nine albums of material. I was going through it all and thinking, “I have to have this,” or “I can’t live without that.” I wanted to get it right. If I do a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, how much of West Side Story do I put in? Don said, “Hey, we got to get it down to 12 songs.” I said, “I honestly don’t know how to do that, because I love all these songs.” He said, “Well, then ask Bill.” And we did. We had dinner with him and we hung out for three hours and talked. That’s when I realized that I could separate the performer from the songwriter. Bill essentially gave me that permission, which is great. Then, and only then, was I able to inhabit the songs and have that freedom. I didn’t have to be in his shadow. The interesting thing is that he’s still with us, so it’s like making them live again. I didn’t get a chance to see him live and I’m a fan. I’m just glad that no one else thought of it first. [Laughs]

What was the logic for the song order? At first I thought it was chronological, but that’s not accurate.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” was the challenge, because you have to do it, so where do you put it?  I do it live first too, because it’s the closest to his sound that we do. It’s me with his exact sound and voicings, playing the guitar. I think it’s cool because people are very protective of his music and their memories and emotions around that. When you’re performing jazz standards, you’re rarely performing for the people who grew up on them. This is different.

That’s interesting because you’ve been playing these shows at jazz festivals and venues.

But these are like the audience’s standards. There’s this, “I hope this is good, but …” Because the album isn’t out and people don’t know what it’s going to sound like.

Right, like last night at the Tennis Hall of Fame.

There’s like this “We’ll see” attitude, but then we start and I sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” and people know it’s going to be awesome for them. So we start in a familiar place and slowly expand it. Also, energetically it moves. Really, the hardest tunes for me to do were the most popular ones, like “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us” and “Lean on Me.”

Has Bill heard the album?

No, but I believe he’s going to see us at the Hollywood Bowl. His daughter, Kori Withers, is going to sit in with us. She’s heard it and loves it. But I’m on pins and needles about Bill’s reaction. I do hope he likes it.

It will also help to see it live, because you do bring the music to life.

It helps that he knew about me before we had the meeting. Which I didn’t know. Bruce Lundvall sent him my music when I first signed to Blue Note. Bruce was trying to hook us up 12 years ago, which I’m glad didn’t happen then.

That was so like Bruce.

Bruce was the one guy he trusted in the business. They worked together at Elektra.

The reaction I saw during the Blue Note at Sea cruise was incredible. Folks knew every tune and were singing, dancing, and grooving from beginning to end. Same here at Newport. Is that how it’s gone everywhere?

Totally. All the way straight through. Every night. It’s really fun. It’s the first project I’ve done that lets me get outside of myself and my own ego, which is refreshing. I feel like I’m doing it well, but these songs have already been done. It’s just like how Ella must have felt doing those songbooks. I’m singing Johnny Mercer all night. Awesome. A lot of those guys were alive then when she did it.

You elected to play the material live a lot before recording it and releasing it.

This is totally opposite. We’re actually gearing up to do a full orchestral tour in the fall of next year. My friend Jules Buckley is now head of the Metropole Orchestra and he writes full orchestral scores. We’ve done some collaborations with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He’s going to be the guest conductor. I want to hear [the songs] with the strings. We’re also going to do some shows with a string quartet with arrangements written by Christian McBride. People are really hungry for Bill’s music, and I think the message connects too. It’s so clear. There’s nothing ambiguous about it. You hear “Lean on Me” and you’re in church and the right kind of church—the church of brotherhood, sisterhood, and friendship. I love it. His music is non-partisan.

You handle that aspect very well.

Abbey Lincoln said famously that what you sing onstage comes through in your life. I remember hearing that on NPR while I was in high school and thinking, “What does that mean?” Now I know it’s true, because you attract that energy. People ask me why I don’t do more overtly political songs or albums. I don’t want to fight the fight every night. It’s exhausting. If you’re built that way, great, but I’m not.

With this material, even though you’ll be doing it a lot during the next year or so, I can see you doing like René Marie did with the Eartha Kitt material, throwing certain songs into your set if they fit.

I can never see not doing “Just the Two of Us” or “Lovely Day.” Those are in my book forever. You have to earn those songs. This is a different situation, but when I did the Billie Holiday tribute record [2015’s Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday], I ended with “Strange Fruit” on a [BOSS] Loop Station [looping audio device], just me. And it was pretty haunting and painful, as it should be, really. Then all these European students said that they wanted to learn it and wanted to sing it. I was like, “You know, uh, no.”  You have to earn that song. You have to earn any song. That’s why I love Cécile [McLorin Salvant] so much. She really does her homework. And she’s so smart. You have to be prepared to go all the way with it, not just pull it out. If you care anything about the politics of the time and why it was written, then it’s a totally different thing.

Kurt Elling did Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” on his last album and he pointed out that the words match much of what is going on today.

I have enormous respect for that guy. Technically, him and Bobby and Dianne Reeves are so special.

[Read the interview with Kurt Elling from the May 2018 issue of JazzTimes.]

What did Don Was bring to the production, other than to encourage and enable you to record the album for Blue Note?

Don made a lot of adjustments along the way, but they were rock adjustments—like, “That’s the wrong snare.” He and [engineer] Ed Cherney go way back. Don did a lot of subtle things that I would miss, listening to the album. For example, the acoustic guitar on “Lean on Me,” which gives it the folkie, rootsy thing. He added Lenny Castro on percussion later. Mostly it was listening, and saying, “That one was a definitive take,” which is great to keep the energy going. Because singers and musicians will do take six of “Lean on Me” when, no, take one was it. Move on. He did a ton of post-production, adding keys, little touches that made it work. Like adding Lalah Hathaway on “Lovely Day.”

Did Lalah sit in with you guys during the Blue Note at Sea cruise?

No, I was at the Q&A that she did and I wanted to ask her, but I didn’t. I’m not that guy who goes up to folks like that. It’s not me. And it’s funny to ask another vocalist to step into your world. But I found out through Bill that he and Donny [Hathaway, her late father] were best friends, which I didn’t know. Now, to have her on the album makes more sense. There was an overwhelming message of positivity from everybody.

I’ve been on a huge Crosby, Stills & Nash kick lately. Those old records were so good. The whole reason that Bill started recording was because of Stephen Stills. He’s on the “Ain’t No Sunshine” session, playing bass. Apparently Graham Nash came by the studio and convinced Bill to sing. Because Bill didn’t really want to sing. He said, “No, I’m just a songwriter.” They were like, “What are you talking about? You’re amazing.” He was just there with his guitar, playing his songs to get other people to do them for these demos. He was expecting a studio singer to come in and sing his stuff. Which really shows how humble he is. Can you imagine? In interviews, he’d say about that time, “I don’t know, Stephen Stills said I was good, so why not?” The humility—can we get back to that? Kanye West, can we get back to that?