Midnight Album Spotlight: Bill Withers - Just As I Am

Every week I choose an album to spotlight on KEXP. This week it’s soul legend Bill Withers, who mixes pop and soul like no one else.

Bill Withers’ songs are soulful, literary and emotional. If you only hear his songs, and don’t ever get an earful of him in an interview, you’d never know that the guy who writes such sensitive lyrics is actually a pistol in person. Here is a rare live version of his top-charting R&B hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” (I love the happy drummer in this vid!).

My name’s Michele Myers and I’m a DJ on KEXP. I’ve been here since 1995 working in every capacity that I could at the station. Two years ago I got my own radio show on Friday nights. And then last year I was hired to create short radio documentaries for the station full time.

I’m slowly getting better at producing documentaries. There is a lot to learn. Aspects of journalism, interviewing skills, finding existing audio, editing, writing scripts, choosing music and narrating all play a part in making these short features. It’s a very public learning experience!

My job is to bring you a musical subject in the time it takes to play just one song. I’ve done series including: Punk Evolution, Masters of Turntablism, The Heart of Soul, Music Revolutionaries and Death, Drugs and Rock n Roll. Next week I start a new series called Portraits of Post-Punk. Each feature airs once on Kevin Cole’s show Thursdays at 3pm, then is re-broadcast on Quilty 3000′s show Saturdays at 2pm.

So far my favorite doc I’ve made is this one with Bill Withers. Bill Withers was born in 1938 (this makes him 70 years old today) to a family of coal miners in West Virginia. He had lots of obstacles to face. After his father left when he was 4 years old he was raised by his mom and grandma. Also, he had to struggle with being African-American in the chaotic civil rights era. He joined the navy at age 18 to get out of his hometown. Bill also stuttered until he was 26. When he was 29 he moved to L.A. to become a musician. He got a job there making toilet seats for an aircraft company and made song demos at night during his shift breaks. He sent these around with no luck for quite some time.

It wasn’t until musician Forest Hamilton heard Bill Withers’ demo that Bill was introduced to Booker T. Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). Booker T. and Bill made this record “Just As I Am” that dropped in 1971. The record title was picked because Bill felt he was surrounded by great music pros who generously gave him full creative control. Bill says:

“...they let me be the focus of attention. They assured me that they liked my songs and my singing. They were even kind enough and diplomatic enough not to mention my lack of prowess on the guitar (smile). They assured me that it was o.k. to be me and thus the title... Just As I Am.”

Here is the documentary I made on Bill Withers as part of the Heart of Soul series for KEXP Documentaries. Bill is keepin’ it real. Such a contrast to his gently sung songs!

Listen Now

Please join me for my radio show Nite Life this Friday at 9pm, and at midnight I’ll talk about this Bill Withers album, play 3 songs from it and play his documentary. Also, keep an ear out for KEXP Documentaries played Thursdays at 3pm and Saturdays at 2pm. Or check out all KEXP Docs online in the Learn tab at kexp.org.

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