Friday 9 March 2012

From the archive: "Still Bill: The Bill Withers Story"

One of the highlights of the recent Soul Power, the documentary on the live gig that supported the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle", was an electrifying performance by the great Bill Withers. Withers is perhaps most regularly remembered for his voice - simultaneously booming and vulnerable - but Still Bill, an affectionate portrait by directors Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, sets it within the context of Withers the man. A working stiff from a Virginia mining town, the singer spent his early years of success juggling life on the road with his career as a mechanic installing toilets in planes, a biographical detail that perhaps explains the quasi-mechanical craftsmanship inherent in a song like "Lean on Me" - why it still comes through so loud and clear on AM radio - and his subsequent reluctance to play the fame game. Withers is a resolutely uncontroversial figure, a musician who married young to a smart UCLA graduate, Marcie, raised a family, and flourished on stability, where others nosedived into excess.

If that leaves Baker and Vlack with not a huge deal to say over these 77 minutes, it's still refreshing to encounter someone who's emerged from the machinations of the music industry with no regrets and no hang-ups: a genuine nice guy whose entirely casual attitude to celebrity and the making of music - illustrated more or less perfectly here by a Top of the Pops appearance that sees the singer sporting the type of rugby shirt you or I might don to nip to the garage of a Sunday morn - is never less than a joy to behold. Mr. Withers is happily ensconced in semi-retirement these days, we learn, although his back catalogue continues to re-enter the charts whenever someone remixes "Lovely Day" - an ongoing pleasure, one of that small handful of songs guaranteed to lift one's spirits wherever one hears it - or an X-Factor contestant massacres "Ain't No Sunshine". If those royalty pennies go to keep Withers this balanced, relaxed and - darn it - huggable, then it's all worth it.

(October 2009)

Still Bill screens on BBC4 tonight at 9pm, and again on Sunday at 1.40am.

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