By Nethan Crew
“Just As I Am” is the debut studio album of American soul artist Bill Withers. It was released in May 1971 and features one of the most emotionally impactful songs of the 20th century, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It was produced by the famous 70s songwriter and musician Booker T. Jones and has writing credits from Stephen Stills of “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.”
Withers was born in the small coal mining town of Slab York on July 4, 1938. He grew up to serve in the U.S. Navy for nine years before moving to Los Angeles to start a music career. He started to work at many factory jobs including at IBM, Ford and Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California. During this time, Withers often made his own demos, continued to write songs and performed at clubs in his spare time. The album cover features Withers beside a brick wall with a lunch box at Weber Aircraft while he was on his lunch break.
The first song on the album, “Harlem,” functions as a perfect introductory track to this album. It features Withers’ grave but emotional voice is backed by triumphant synth chords on top of booming drums and accompanying guitar. The song allows for Withers to introduce himself and an aspect of his writing style in the first 3 minutes of having his audience’s attention.
The second track, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” features the same instruments as “Harlem” but with a much more somber tone. The track features one of the most influential moments in music in my opinion, the iconic repetition of “I know” over much of the song. It utilizes one of the simplest ideas of romance– having a worse time without a love interest than you would have with them. The song peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy for the Best R&B song of 1972.
The third track was also one of the more popular songs off the album. “Grandma’s Hands” is a more soulful track that features humming over simple percussion and guitar riffs that add a spiritual tone to the woeful lyrics about Withers’ grandmother. It has been covered by many artists including Gil Scott Heron and was sampled to make “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. The following track, “Sweet Wanomi” features upbeat guitar chords and an iconic warm voice.
An impressive track on the album is Withers’ cover of the famous Beatles song “Let It Be.” Withers adds a triumphant tone to the song by scoring it with similar basic instrumentation with joyful guitar and jazzy church organ. This is immediately followed with the somber “I’m Her Daddy,” which details in a format akin to a written letter a relationship with an estranged significant other who secretly withheld their child from him.
Bill Withers’ “Just As I Am” is nothing short of timeless. Almost every song has a resonating message that can be felt 51 years after it was released. Somber tracks such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “In My Heart,” “Better Off Dead” and “I’m Her Daddy” juxtaposes warm and vibrant tracks such as “Harlem,” “Sweet Wanomi,” “Everybody’s Talking” and “Let It Be” to show off the emotional depth of a working class man from the Slab Fork.