When Bill Withers burst onto the music scene in the early 1970s, this former coal country scion and aerospace worker suddenly became the premier singer-songwriter working across R&B, folk and rock styles. As his new The Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters box sets makes clear, his best songs were marvelously efficient in affect — direct and earnest — but never simplistic in content. He could find a hundred ways to lyrically express "I love you" without falling back on cliche. No wonder that so many of his songs became the favorites of other singers, looking to adapt some of his magic and make it their own.
Still Bill: 5 Bill Withers Covers
Soul Fantastics, "Ain't No Sunshine"
Withers' first hit was also his most popular, with dozens of covers spanning different geographies, eras and genres. It speaks to how truly remarkable this tune is that practically any version sounds good. Case in point, this (mostly) instrumental cover by Panama's Soul Fantastics still carries over the magic of the original arrangement despite leaving the vocals at the door. Anyone familiar with the tune will already mentally fill in the blanks anyway: "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / Only darkness when she's away."
Al Jarreau, "Use Me"
These days, we tend to think of Withers and Jarreau as contemporaries of one another – fellow crooners-in-arms – but Jarreau made it clear how much he respected Withers when, in 1979, he recorded an entire album of Withers's covers: Lonely Town, Lonely Street. Eight songs long, Jarreau drew from Withers's first three studio albums, though the lion's share of covers came off of Withers's first two (and best-known) efforts, Just As I Am and Still Bill. Jarreau's cover of the catchy "Use Me," is quite loyal – down to that funky clavinet – but Jarraeu manages to be even smoother in his delivery than his "elder."
Spanky Wilson, "Kissing My Love"
For his early albums, Withers had powerhouse bands backing him: first Booker T. and the MGs, then the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band. It was the latter who worked on Still Bill and drummer-producer James Gadson laid down one of his best-known drum solos to open the crackling, mid-tempo groover, "Kissing My Love." On her cover, soul belter Spanky Wilson and her band build off that drum break intro with a cover that manages to be sparser than its progenitor yet amps the verve up a notch or two.
Out of Eden, "Lovely Day"
After a five-year dry spell, "Lovely Day" returned Withers to the top of the charts with its sparkling production and cheery sentiment. Interestingly, unlike his earlier songs, "Lovely Day" wasn't particularly popular with Withers' peers at the time; it was really a younger generation who took it up for themselves. That included Richmond, Va., gospel group Out of Eden, who covered the song in 1994, giving their version a hip-hop-influenced update.
John Legend feat. The Roots, "I Can't Write Left Handed"
Social commentary was never that far from Withers' mind, especially in his early years, but few songs were as overtly political as "I Can't Write Left Handed." Appearing on his Live at Carnegie Hall album in 1973, the song is dedicated to a returning Vietnam War veteran whose shoulder wound prevents him from writing a letter to his mother. When John Legend and The Roots got together for the socially-inspired Wake Up! in 2010, they took what had been a relatively obscure tune from Withers's songbook and updated it to subtly reflect on a new era of war in the daily lives of Americans.