I Know, I Know, I Know (Bill Withers)

Image result for bill withers just as i amBill Withers (that’s the great…) came late to making records. Born in 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia he joined the US Navy at 18 where he served 9 years before settling in Los Angeles, working a day job to finance his demo tapes while performing at night. His luck changed in 1970 when Sussex Records signed him to make an album. Sussex had a producer who was new to California but an old hand behind the studio desk. Booker T Jones, off of “& the M.G.’s”, had gotten tired of working too hard for too little financial reward at Stax in Memphis. He married Priscilla Coolidge, Rita’s sister, relocated & was looking for new challenges. For “Just As I Am” (1971) Booker T called in his old rhythm section Al Jackson (drums) & Duck Dunn (bass), Stephen Stills brought along some L.A. friends. The first single, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, you know it, sold over a million copies, made the US Top 10 & was awarded the Grammy for the Best R&B song of that year. Bill Withers, reluctant to quit his job making toilet seats for Boeing 747’s, became an unlikely & deserving star.

Image result for bill withers muhammad ali“Just As I Am” hits the ground running with the evocative, picaresque “Harlem”, “Ain’t No Sunshine” a sure-fire smash, the touching, universal “Grandma’s Hands” & the sheer class keeps on coming. Bill was no Soul shouter, his direct Folk-Gospel suitably framed in simple, driving arrangements with taut string flourishes. A cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “Let It Be” is more successful than Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” but it’s the mature plainspeak of his own lyrics that marks Bill Withers as an outstanding, individual talent. The sad & beautiful “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, a late-night broken hearted farewell to an ex, never fails to affect. This performance is from 1974, a highlight of a concert in Zaire arranged as part of the Ali – Foreman rumble. The cameras stay on the singer & his authentic Star Power is confirmed.

When Bill had to go to work at his new job he knew just the crew to to share the stage with. Keyboard player Ray Jackson had assisted him with those early demos. Ray’s fellow members of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band, Benorce Blackmon (guitar), Melvin Dunlap (bass) & the inimitable drummer James Gadson all handed in their notice & joined Bill’s band. The evidence of just how good they were is right here & on the Y-tube there is a half hour show from 1972 which touches greatness. They all knew it too, enjoying laying down the coolest, in-the-pocket groove. They did it sitting down, imagine how good they would have been if they had stood up!

The band, with percussionist Bobbye Hall, recorded & produced the next LP “Still Bill” (1972) which hit the same spots & more. The modern day hymn “Lean On Me”, you not only know that tune but you know the words too, was a US #1 while the sensual “Use Me”, not just the hook of the year but one for all-time, peaked at #2. No-one else’s songs this time just great originals like “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?”, a typically accurate encapsulation of jealousy covered most successfully by groups with female leads (Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Soul Children). The best tracks…it’s a list but I hear the joyous funk of “When I’m Kissing My Love”  & I’m singing it for days.

Image result for bill withers carnegie hallThe following year the Bill Withers gang released “Live at Carnegie Hall” & what a life-affirming disc that is. The hits are played, “Use Me” twice, & enthusiastically received by a full house. The singer’s & band’s performances have a little more drive & grit than on studio recordings & that’s nothing but a good thing. The 5 new songs include the empathic “I Can’t Write Left Handed” about a young man who lost an arm in the Vietnam War. Bill didn’t write polemics, didn’t involve himself with the politics of the day. His stories about himself & others contain a sensibility that is more enduring than strident sloganeering. “…Carnegie Hall”, with the long revivalist encore of “Harlem/Cold Baloney” is one of the great live albums.

Image result for bill withers posterThese three albums are the imperial phase of Bill’s career. He could take his seat at the top table of Soul alongside Marvin, Stevie, Curtis & others. After this the business of the music business started to get in the way. “+Justments” (1974) is a fine record, the last with his band & possibly a little rushed. Sussex Records was closed by the Inland Revenue & Bill was left hanging before signing with Columbia. In no way should his time with a major label be dismissed, the records are still warm & individual but a production gloss moves him away from his original sound & the company often rejected tracks while making inappropriate suggestions for material. Bill tells a great story about white “blaxperts” insisting that Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” was the song for him!

There were still successes. “Lovely Day” (1977) became yet another of Bill’s songs that entered the public consciousness. A collaboration with Grover Washington, “Just the Two of Us” won the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1981. It’s not just the hits, on every record there are songs & vocal performances that deserved a wider hearing. In 1985, after a 7 year hiatus, he released an album including the slow jam “Something That Turns You On”. Some of the songs on “Watching You Watching Me” were ones that had previously been rejected. Bill had a life before touring, recording & promoting product & now, happily married with a young family, he stepped away from the business & rarely recorded again.

Image result for bill withers 2009In 2009 the documentary “Still Bill” brought the reticent star back into the public eye. It’s a portrait of a 70-something man who has lived a good life well & learned some stuff along the way. Bill Withers is not only a very, very nice man his domestic, grounded Zen wisdom, still unimpressed by the star-making machinery, marks him as an admirable person. A highlight of the film is when he joins guitarist Cornell Dupree onstage for “Grandma’s Hands”. Two maestros doing what they do to the delight of the audience, to myself & to pretty much everyone I know. Accolades have come Bill’s way, a Wonder (Stevie) & a Legend (John) assisted him in his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It is the four or five songs of his that everyone knows & others that we should know that mark him as an outstanding, abiding artist. The full documentary is on the Y-tube so if you have 70 minutes to spare. Hey, make sure you see it.

Shut Up and Shoot (Chester Himes)

I was so ready for the books of Chester Himes when I first read them. Anyone becoming aware of the world in the 1960s could not ignore the developing consciousness of black people in the USA. From the noble and symbolic protest in 1955 by Rosa Parks, “tired of giving in” to segregation on public transport in Alabama, to the black nationalism of the Black Panthers in the late 60s was a short time and a long journey. I got my information from the music. First it was Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” concerning the struggle of James Meredith to exert his rights as a citizen and enroll at the University of Mississippi. Sam Cooke, James Brown and others passed on the news. Later Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield dealt with the progress made and the problems ahead. The speeches and writings of Dr King and Malcolm X were, of course, vital signposts. It was the odyssey undertaken by Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali, the struggle by the greatest sportsman of the 20th century to assert his individuality and the vituperation this provoked, which acted as the biggest influence upon and the most clear explanation for my young self.

I had read the books of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the two pre-eminent African-American literary figures of the 40s and 50s. “Soul On Ice” (Eldridge Cleaver), “Soledad Brother” (George Jackson) and “If They Come In The Morning” (Angela Davis) were staples on student bookshelves in the early 1970s. The detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were masterly works in a genre which had become marginalised as “hard-boiled” or “pulp”. The Harlem Detective novels of Chester Himes hit me upside the cerebrum on so many satisfactory levels. Himes’ work is the link between the black literary tradition and the assertiveness of the late 1960s. Ralph Ellison had named the negro the “Invisible Man” in his novel but Harlem was New York City, brash, busy and brutal. The characters in Himes’ novels are loud and proud and with an eye for the main chance. I had never read about this hermetic black culture of the 50s and 60s which, despite institutionalised racism, hustled and bustled and crackled with. often misdirected, energy. As detective/crime fiction the books are violent, sexy, as funny as hell. Nowadays people think that Quentin Tarantino invented this shit.

Chester Himes described a social milieu which functioned in parallel to the rest of NYC. All human life was to be found within, politicians, preachers, hookers, hustlers and those trying to live with as little intrusion from these people as possible. There was black pride before “Black Pride”, an urban confidence, an elan which survived despite the acknowledgement that in any contact with white society there would only be one winner. Obviously it was my own naivete which contributed to my delight to enter this world through the books. Himes’ skill as a writer, his flair for character and story-telling combined with a moral outrage at the choices Harlemites are forced to make to get by, made the books great.

His detectives are Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, a fearsome dynamic duo attempting to discern and interpret a lot of senseless stuff. Their beat is Harlem, these two black men live in Long Island. They have made their deal with The Man by becoming cops, while at work they are “the mens”. Distrusted by both their employer and by the community they police, the bond between the two men has to be a strong one. They are capable of turning a blind eye to some things and also of  brutality, psychological torture and intimidation to those, of either sex, who try to thwart them. Coffin Ed has an acid-scarred face which he uses to frighten and intimidate and often causes comment. I did not read the 8 Harlem novels in order. In the first one, “For the Love Of Imabelle” (1957), Himes writes an account of the acid-throwing incident. Coffin Ed had done some bad things in a bad world but I was moved, even shocked, to read of how his disfigurement had happened. In American crime fiction there are no finer creations than Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.

Hollywood has made 3 attempts to capture the pair on film. The first 2 were in the early 1970s, part of the wave of “blaxploitation” movies. “Cotton Comes To Harlem” & “Come Back Charleston Blue” de-clawed Himes’  Harlem pandemonium and went for a comedy angle. In 1991 Bill Duke filmed “Imabelle” as “A Rage In Harlem” and our heroes were relegated to bit parts. “Cotton”, as a period piece, and “Rage”, for the designer violence & Robin Givens in some super-tight dresses, are worth a look but all swerve the fatalism at the heart of Chester Himes’  books. So, no trailer then…here’s the great Bill Withers with his take on Harlem.

Chester Himes had an interesting and individual take on the world and lived a unique life. Born in 1909 as a young boy he witnessed the distress of his family when his brother was blinded in a school science demonstration and was refused treatment at a white hospital. ” A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby. My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol.” He attended college in Ohio but was soon expelled over a “prank”. Just 19, he was sentenced to 20 to 25 years hard labour for armed robbery. While in prison he began to write and be published.

Released on parole after 7 years Himes spent time in Los Angeles writing novels and for the screen. The racism he encountered there convinced him that America was no place to be black. “I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”. He left for France, where he had a literary reputation, to join a small group of emigres that included Wright and Baldwin. It was in France that his bitterness and hate were poured into the Harlem Detective novels published between 1957 and 1969.

There was more than negativity in the books. For sure the world was screwed but his characters still had hope however unrealistic. The final book, “Blind Man With a Pistol” does, though, descend into nihilism with its final description of that very man firing sightlessly at anyone and anything on a New York subway train. It is a great and powerful image. When you put the book down you just have to sit quietly for some time before summoning the motivation to do…well, something. You have read Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”…it’s like that.

Reading these books put me on to so many other things. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I sought out the books of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, two writers dealing with fictional low-life America. The Allison & Busby editions of Himes’ books had very striking covers (see the top of this post). These were by the English artist Edward Burra, a Surrealist painter who was enchanted by the vibrancy he found on the Harlem streets in the 1930s and 40s. His art warranted further investigation and I discovered a man who was, in my opinion, the greatest British painter of the 20th century.

Now maybe people like Zora Neale and Lightning Rod and Walter Mosley without going anywhere near Chester Himes. In my own experience I have found his great books to be pivotal to an understanding of African-American art and culture of my lifetime. When I had read all 8 of the Harlem novels I moved on to the two volumes of autobiography but was a little ticked off that there would be no new tales of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger. If I made New Year’s resolutions then maybe it’s time to go back to these books.