Two singer-songwriters, from two generations, make a connection.
Blue Note recording artist José James, an eclectic, groove-minded jazz singer with hip hop and R&B sensibility, makes his Hop debut on Wednesday, August 1, 8 pm, in Spaulding Auditorium with a program celebrating legendary R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers.
Ten years after he wowed listeners with his first album, Dreamer, James performs a set list vetted personally by Withers, now 80 and long retired from the music business. Featuring Withers’s top ten hits as well as his soul ballads and rare grooves, James brings both a deep musical appreciation and a contemporary approach to songs such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and “Just the Two of Us.”
It’s high time someone created a tribute of this magnitude for Withers, who in eight short years in the music business created a remarkable number of classic songs – songs that were chart-toppers while also being subtle masterpieces, written about such unlikely topics as the beauty of his grandmother’s hands.
Raised in West Virginia with his ears filled with African American blues, soul and gospel and white country music and bluegrass, Withers was not a musician until, at about age 30, working in an aircraft factory in Southern California, he decided he would try songwriting. He taught himself guitar, and the songs began pouring out. His singular early life, music career and post-music-career life are the subject of a fascinating 2015 article in Rolling Stone magazine.
His career lasted eight years by his own count; in that time, he wrote and recorded some of the most loved, most covered songs of all time, particularly “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” — tunes that feature dead-simple, soulful instrumentation and pure melodies that haven’t aged a second. “He’s the last African-American Everyman,” says Questlove. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” (Rolling Stone).
“I’ve been drawn to Bill Withers’ music for years and started performing a medley of his songs in my live set,” James explained in an artist statement. “When I discovered that he was turning 80 in 2018, I thought, ‘What better way to bring positivity to the world while challenging the racist, fascist and sexist status quo?’ His songs reflect a love for community, for unification; his music respects elders, mentors and explores male vulnerability in a way that’s missing from today’s R&B.”
James asked Blue Note producer and label head Don Was to help curate a set list of Withers songs. Was immediately suggested they ask Withers himself, and he set up a meeting. Said James: “Meeting Bill Withers was one of the personal highlights of my life. … He’s a total genius and one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. I learned more in that one hour with him than I learned at music school or a decade’s worth of live shows. He’s seen it all and worked with the best of them, in every category. … We all adore him and any songwriter worth their salt knows that Bill is up there with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John, Billy Joel – he’s in the pantheon of greats. Plus he’s an amazing singer and developed a sophisticated sound that blends funk, singer-songwriter, blues, R&B and gospel. I showed him my list of his songs and he absolutely loved it. I think he’s happy that his music still has a place in the lives and hearts of people worldwide and that we all want to celebrate his life and talent.”Wanting to do right by Withers, James asked Blue Note president Don Was about his song choices, wrote Billboard.