Song Of The Day 6/8/2015: Bill Withers – “Heartbreak Road”


Supreme, Incredible, God-Like Champions of Understatement: Male rhythm & blues singers of my general area of expertise – roughly the ’60s and ’70s (actually, not so roughly at all) – usually fell into a couple of camps typified by an assortment of standard-bearers. This is a very unrefined delineation on my part that doesn’t cover anywhere close to the whole compass of R&B, but it works for my clear-headedness and, more importantly, my editors.

If you had to assign most of my favorite male R&B singers a figurehead, it’d probably be Otis Redding, which isn’t much of a surprise since he’s still my favorite singer in R&B history, maybe music history. So I naturally gravitate towards vocalists who had Otis’ preacher’s soul and commitment to finding the power of every phonetic unit – Wilson Pickett, Teddy Pendergrass, Levi Stubbs, uptempo Maurice White.

Then you had singers who I’d trace back to Sam Cooke: rounded tones, less melisma, the voice being more part of the song than the revving engine. Their voices could be comforting or plaintive or usually both, depending on the story. As I’ve gotten older and less able to thrust my extensions according to my geometric designs, those singers (who nonetheless could be Otises when they pleased) have gained more of a foothold in my collection. So this week we’ll deal with a lot of Cookes.

In reality, this whole week came about because I wanted to put something up by Bill Withers, who hasn’t recorded a note in about 30 years. Bill’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the first pop songs I heard as a kid. His profile infers both strength and demureness. Questlove called him “the last African-American Everyman.” He’s got this quality of anchorage about him that just brings everything back to center. “Heartbreak Road” comes from Withers’ ’74 album +’Justments, the last of his albums for Sussex Records, a meditation on survival, trial-and-error and responsibility.

Withers grew up with a stutter, which he discussed with Rolling Stone a few months ago: “I figured out that my stutter – and this isn’t the case for everyone – was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did of myself.” I mention that because, well, that’s pretty much my root problem as well. I’m having it looked at.

Normally a pithy closing would go in this space but instead I’m going to issue a demand that you see Still Bill, the 2009 documentary about Withers that’s simply a beautiful thing to experience.
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