Reprint the Legend: Revisiting Bill Withers's Carnegie Hall Classic

Reprint the Legend: Revisiting Bill Withers's Carnegie Hall Classic
Bob Gruen

Grandma's hands soothed a local unwed mother
Grandma's hands used to ache sometimes and swell
— Bill Withers, "Grandma's Hands"

Released in early 1973, Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall is a tour de force of soulful immediacy. The 75-minute double LP, recorded in the autumn of the year prior, captures Withers at the top of his game, backed by a rhythm section steeped in funk and playing to a capacity crowd that had braved a rainstorm to see an artist they'd discovered a scant sixteen months before. That was when his first album, Just as I Am, shot up the soul and pop charts, propelled by songs like "Ain't No Sunshine," which garnered a Grammy. The summer of '72 brought a second record, Still Bill, an even stronger follow-up that yielded the singles "Use Me" and the immortal, hymnlike "Lean on Me."

On Thursday, October 1, Carnegie Hall will resound anew with "Lean on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers," performed by, among others, Ed Sheeran, Branford Marsalis, Amos Lee, Keb' Mo', Aloe Blacc, Michael McDonald, Kathy Mattea, and Dr. John. The concert will re-create the original setlist, along with a handful of the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee's other songs.

Ask Withers to name his favorite cut from Live at Carnegie Hall, and he hedges.

"Each song has its own story, its own motivation, its own reason for doing it," he says by phone from his home in the hills above West Hollywood. "You can't help but think of them once in a while. It's part of your life. It's like: 'Do you remember all of your grandchildren?' "

Withers opened up, though, to a live audience at the BBC back in '73.

"Out of all the things that I might have written, my favorite thing that I've written has to be about this favorite old lady of mine," he said before singing the gospel-tinged "Grandma's Hands."

That lead-in was the condensed version. Withers's intro when the tapes were rolling at Carnegie on October 6, 1972, ran just about as long as it took him to perform the song itself. With no hint of the stutter that had plagued him since his youth, he told the audience about going to church with his grandmother in his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia. "I was maybe five or six years old. And the most I coulda done was to let her fall on me if she decided to fall," he said. But he loved his grandmother, and church was cool. Sundays were a raucous affair, filled with music, and his grandmother loved to play the tambourine.

"They had them fat sisters in there, used to get so glad in the rhythm. Had a little stove in there for heat, and invariably one of the fat sisters would feel so good, she would jump into the stove and holler, 'Oww-www,' right in the rhythm....

"And the honorable reverend back there had an old bass drum that somebody gave him. And when the groove got right and the fat sister hit the stove and hollered and Grandma shook the tambourine off the hip, the reverend'd get to feelin' so good, he'd just hit himself all upside the head with the drumstick.

"Yeah. I loved that old lady. Loved that old lady."

More than 40 years later, Withers, who turned 77 on the Fourth of July, speaks animatedly about the making of Live at Carnegie Hall.

"Hardly anybody thought I should be playing the place or recording it," he says. "Because it was only my third album. There was some question as to whether I could draw enough people to play Carnegie Hall. Up until then I'd been playing the Bitter End and the Troubadour, unless I was opening for somebody like Blood, Sweat & Tears or Jethro Tull, who played larger places. Basically I was, like, an opening act or a club guy."

He says he hasn't listened to the album since he put the final production touches on it in early '73. Not out of character for a man with Withers's reputation for putting things in the rearview — most famously the music business, which he walked away from after 1985's Watching You Watching Me, an album he has publicly repudiated. (If he's keeping score, his relationship with the music industry went south after his original label, Sussex, went bankrupt in 1975.)

But surely he must recall whether the sequence on the album matches the setlist — whether "Use Me," the opening track, actually opened the show. The cut, after all, is eight and a half minutes long. (The studio version clocks in at 3:45.) In concert, Withers sets the groove a tick or two slow. The audience claps along. When the singer wraps up at about the six-minute mark, there's a round of applause followed by a modest but clearly amped-up " 'preciate that" from Withers. More applause. Withers: "Thank you!" Then: "One more time?" Audience: "Yeah!" Withers: "One more time!"

That sounds like an encore — was it really the night's first number?

"Probably," Withers says dismissively. "I don't remember. That's a long time ago."

Sometimes you print the legend. Other times it seems fitting to set the record straight. Assertions diverge regarding the recording and release of Live at Carnegie Hall. Some sources say the concert took place in 1973; others peg the album release to November 1972. Both are wrong.

Billboard magazine archives reveal that Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall was released in the early spring of 1973. The concert itself took place October 6, 1972.

The Vietnam War song, "I Can't Write Left-Handed," contains the evidence: It opens with an introduction whose first words are overdubbed.

"We recorded this song on October the 6th. Since then the war has been declared over," Withers proclaims, clearly referencing President Richard Nixon's announcement following the Paris Peace Accords, which were signed in late January of 1973.

Withers's band consisted of the same lineup that backed him on Still Bill, released in the spring of '72 — Benorce Blackmon on guitar, Ray Jackson on piano, Melvin Dunlap on bass, and James Gadson on drums — plus percussionist Bobbye Hall. Hall was a child prodigy from Detroit whose session credits include Motown stars like the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson, as well as pop stars like Carole King and Bob Dylan. Blackmon, Dunlap, Gadson, and Jackson (who has since passed away), meanwhile, were the core members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which backed funk pioneer Charles Wright on hits like "Do Your Thing" and "Express Yourself."

"When we got with Bill, we would just fall into grooves, fall into the pocket," Dunlap says by phone from his home in Los Angeles, where at age 70 he's still active in the studio. "The night before, we all were sort of anxious. We were going to be playing at Carnegie Hall! What is the crowd going to be like? The following day, we came out, plugged in, and played. We really played. The audience was there for us, and Bill was right on top of things."

Gadson says he wasn't nervous at all. Now 76 and living in L.A., he, too, keeps busy in the studio and counts among his recent credits two 2014 Grammy-winning albums, Beck's Morning Phase and Ziggy Marley's Fly Rasta. "We were pretty tight," he says of the Withers rhythm section's musical rapport. "Sometimes a person will start something and say, 'Hey, it's too slow' or 'It's too fast.' We didn't have that situation. Whatever happened, happened. When we hit, we hit. The night we did it, I knew that it was good. I knew."

Lead guitarist Blackmon, who turned 68 on September 10, didn't view Carnegie Hall as a big deal at the time.

"I don't want to sound glib about it, but it was just a gig to me — I think to all of us," says the Seattle-born Blackmon, who has made his home in L.A. for decades.

"Bill walked into a ready-made situation," Blackmon goes on. "We were already a working band — it wasn't like we had to learn anything. We used to rehearse in James [Gadson]'s garage. Bill would say, 'We were the original garage band.' That's where all the songs came out of: James's garage. We just brought out the garage to the stage."

Blackmon says he had a great time working with Withers, describing the singer as a notorious practical joker, "always trying to trick someone. There was a whole lot of laughing going on. It was just fun — how can I say this? ­— it was fun playing what another person feels."

While clearly a reaction to the ongoing war in Southeast Asia, "I Can't Write Left-Handed" sounds prophetically fresh today. Withers never included the song on a studio album. But as with "Grandma's Hands," his two-minute preface at Carnegie is as memorable as his performance of the song. "I can remember not too long ago seeing a young guy," he says, "with his right arm gone. Just got back. And I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing all right now but he had thought he was going to die. He said getting shot at didn't bother him — it was getting shot that shook him up. And I tried to put myself in his position. Maybe he cried. Maybe he said, 'I can't write left-handed...' "

Reprint the Legend: Revisiting Bill Withers's Carnegie Hall Classic
Bob Gruen

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"I was in the military for nine years," Withers explains today. "I never was in combat, but I had friends who were. So that was part of the memory-bank experience."

"Bill was very spontaneous," notes Dunlap, referring to Withers's gift for in-concert gab. "He can do a lot of ad-libbing. It's almost like sitting around a fireplace and he's telling a story. That's the way he started out with us: He came out and he was just being himself. And the thing was, he stutters at times, but he didn't stutter that much. He would bring his high chair and sit out there and talk to the audience, and they just loved it."

To this day Withers takes pride in the fact that he was able to transcend being pigeonholed by audiences or record-label executives. "The music that I made has been covered by all genres, from classical to country," he points out, describing himself as a "crossover" artist.

He takes a similar tack when it comes to discussing the political or civil rights slant of some of his songs. He is the youngest of six children; when he was born, his eldest brother was 24. His father, who'd worked in the coal mines, died at age 60, when Withers was 13. Slab Fork had the proverbial railroad-tracks color line, but his family was one of the few that lived on the white side.

"I probably had more contact with both cultures than they had with each other," he says. "And the one thing that I used to laugh about even as a kid is how similar they were. They just had different accents and listened to different music. And economically, most people worked in the coal mines, so it wasn't like there was a whole lot of disparity in the jobs and stuff.

"I been black a long time now," he adds. "Let me tell you how black I am: My mother's father was born a slave, in 1854. My parents were born in 1891 and 1897. I know I'm black. I've been living in and around Beverly Hills, Hollywood, for more than half my life now. So there's never a time that I'm not aware that I'm black. But I don't let that dictate my thoughts. Because if you do, you limit yourself. You limit what you eat, you limit what you read, you limit what you listen to, and you limit the information that you have."

"When you get old, people start doing stuff, you know, instead of having your funeral. This is like a premature obituary."
"When you get old, people start doing stuff, you know, instead of having your funeral. This is like a premature obituary."
Danny Liao

Michael Dorf has been staging "Music Of" tributes at Carnegie Hall for almost a decade, donating the net proceeds to music-related charities for children. The first concert, in 2006, celebrated Joni Mitchell; the most recent, this past spring, was devoted to David Byrne and Talking Heads. Next up, in March of 2016: David Bowie.

Dorf had plenty of connections to leverage for charity purposes. In 1986, when he was 23, he founded the Knitting Factory, which he built into an indie-music mecca before selling his interest in the venture. (He now owns City Winery, an upscale 300-seat venue on Varick Street downtown, with additional locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Napa, and Nashville.)

He says the series was born at a conference table in 2004, when he was invited to a meeting of record-industry higher-ups and a nonprofit that distributed money to youth-related musical causes.

"They're going, 'We're gonna run out of money from our normal record-company fundraiser work, we need to figure out another way to make some money — any ideas?' " he recounts. "And I raised my hand and said, 'Well, why don't we put on a show? We're from the music industry — let's do a show!' And literally they all looked at me and go, like, 'What, are you crazy? A concert? Do you know how risky that is?' "

Dorf persisted, sketching out his tribute concept, noting that Carnegie Hall, with its deep-pocketed patron base coupled with a paucity of rock and pop shows, might be a good fit. "And they said, 'You're even crazier than we thought.' So I basically said, 'Look, I'll do this show, I'll give 100 percent of the proceeds to this organization, and if it loses anything, I'll take on that risk.' "

He says the shows — which he has organized independently after that first year — have raised more than $1 million, the proceeds donated directly to various charities.

The Withers tribute is something of a special case, Dorf notes. For one thing, no other honoree has been treated to a song-by-song re-creation of a previous Carnegie Hall performance. For another, the idea was proposed by New York native Leo Sacks, who produced the Grammy- winning Withers compilation The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums in 2014.

"The popular notion is that Bill walked away from music. That's mythology," Sacks writes in an email. "The stone truth is that he stopped making music to raise a family. He felt his children deserved a full-time daddy. John Lennon became a househusband. Bill did the same thing. But Bill is the one who's 'misunderstood.' Gotta say, that perception kicks up some negative implications to me. Bill tried to fit the business into his life, and it didn't fit. Remember, this is a no-nonsense U.S. Navy man, a factory guy who carried a lunch pail. I'm surprised he put up with the manure of the music business as long as he did."

Sacks says it's only fitting that his very first conversation with Withers, in 1997, concerned the reissue of Live at Carnegie Hall on CD for Sony's Legacy Recordings division. "It's remarkable how Bill's songs continue to transcend race and class, how they continue to speak to our universal emotions, our everyday truths," he writes. "Remarkable, considering that he wrote and recorded during a very specific time in his life, from his early thirties to his late forties. That was three decades ago."

Reprising the Carnegie show seems like "a natural arc in Bill's very unscripted career," Sacks adds, noting that when he floated the notion to Withers's wife, Marcia, she responded that "initially Bill was bemused by the idea. He seriously wondered whether anyone would show up."

Dorf was thrilled when the singer agreed to consider the plan. "I went and met with Marcia in L.A.," he says. "I told them how we operate and that to build a theme around a cause helps. They immediately came up with the SAY organization — the Stuttering Association for the Young. That became our beneficiary."

Staging tribute concerts at the midtown landmark, Dorf says, has proven to be an effective calling card, not only in drawing an audience but also when it comes to luring talent.

"Many musicians, when they do this series, it's their first time playing Carnegie Hall," he says, describing the venue as "the aspirational sit-down room" and his inspiration for City Winery. "They might be an artist who's played arenas, but Carnegie Hall is a particular milestone for them that they're thrilled to be achieving. It's great to see some really great names get nervous when they are stepping on the stage of Carnegie. You just see the reverence that the musical community puts on being able to play on that stage — it's unmatched anywhere."

The evening's musical director, Greg Phillinganes, lined up the artists and matched them with songs — a complex endeavor, given Withers's genre-hopping catalog. Dorf won't reveal the setlist, but earlier this month Phillinganes told Electronic Urban Report that D'Angelo will sing "Use Me" and one other selection.

Conspicuously absent from the program is the rhythm section that took the stage in 1972. It's hard not to infer that Benorce Blackmon, having witnessed legions of artists cover Withers's work for nearly a half-century, is baffled by the omission. "We haven't lost it. We haven't stopped playing," Blackmon says. "How can they play those songs better than us?"

The guest of honor, at any rate, will attend, though it's unclear how much prodding that may have required from his wife.

"I don't have to do anything except put on some clean clothes, and don't fall down or have 'em see you nap," Withers says before turning a little more earnest. "It's flattering, you know, that the people that are gonna come out saw fit to do that. It's a huge compliment. When you get old, people start doing stuff, you know, in lieu of having your funeral. They have, like, pre-funeral stuff. This is like a premature obituary."

Anyone tempted to inquire whether he'll take the stage need not bother.

"No," he says, before the question can be asked. "Am I gonna play? No. I'm gonna play right after Muhammad Ali boxes. We're gonna do a double bill."

As humble as he is about the tribute, after the reception he received at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, hasn't he considered that his acolytes and admirers might want to hear him sing again, no matter how it sounds?

"Your grandfather sounds a lot different from your brother," Withers counters. "There was a time when the beautiful ladies of the world — Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren and Dorothy Dandridge — them that ain't dead, we don't want to see 'em naked now. There are certain styles of music where you can do that: My good friend and my neighbor, Johnny Mathis, still plays. Tony Bennett still plays. But they ain't gettin' funky. It takes a different kind of energy to get funky."

What about Mick Jagger? He still gets funky now and then.

"Well, you know, that's a matter of taste. And he's not as old as I am," says Withers. "There was a 101-year-old woman I saw online the other day, she still teaches school. I couldn't do that — I don't have the patience or the inclination. There's three stories in my house. I've got an elevator."

Says Blackmon: "Bill can still sing. I've heard him. I think he's just a little tired right now. The road grind — I think he doesn't want that." After Still Bill, a documentary about Withers's split from the music business, was released in 2009, Blackmon notes, "He was talking about going out again. But things happen, you know."

"I don't have that kind of metabolism," Withers says. "Now, if it shows up, then I'll do it. But right now it's just not something that I feel comfortable doing, or that I want to do. I mean, it takes my wife a whole year to convince me to go on vacation. Can you imagine me going on tour? It's a personal thing. And each person should be able to follow his own thing. You got some guys my age doing triathlons. If Mick Jagger wants to go out there and jump up and down, God bless him. But I ain't doing it."

So: a definite maybe.

"Lean on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers" takes place October 1 at Carnegie Hall. The concert is sold out, but check secondary markets for tickets.

[Editor's note 10/1/2015: D'Angelo, who was listed in the original version of this story as scheduled to participate in the tribute concert, withdrew from the event after the article was published. The New York Times reported that the singer's label cited "doctor's orders."]

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