“The Standards of the ’70s”: José James Pays Tribute to Bill Withers

A still-rising jazz and soul singer remembers an R&B hero.

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Bill Withers c. 1973. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The passing of celebrated R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers has inspired deep reflection from a multigenerational array of musicians, including the acclaimed jazz and soul singer José James. “Bill Withers was the coolest person I’ve ever met,” says James, who connected with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee while preparing for 2018’s Lean on Me, his own album-length homage to the singer he considers a mentor.

Withers, who was 81, retired from the music industry in the mid-’80s, but his influence has continued to grow in his absence. To James, who recently released the dynamic R&B/jazz project No Beginning No End 2, Withers was more than an extraordinary vocalist. “He was brilliant,” says the 42-year-old singer, “a sensitive soul and a true class act.”

Over the phone on April 3, James shared more of his recollections and thoughts on Withers with TIDAL. – Jeff Tamarkin

Meeting Bill Withers was the most fascinating three hours of my life. We had dinner in Los Angeles with [Blue Note Records President] Don Was, and the second Bill opened his mouth it was clear I was sitting next to an absolute genius. The way he thinks, his humor, the speed of his thought — it was fascinating. We’re really lucky that he chose music, because he could have been a genius at literally anything he put his mind to. He was from a different generation that I respect and revere so much.

He was also the funniest person I’ve ever met. He could’ve had a career as a standup comedian. He was completely deadpan with his delivery. I’ve met a lot of famous people and nobody has been more gracious and humble about their gift than Bill.

I was so nervous [choosing songs for my project], because he put out nine albums and I’m such a fan, so I’m sitting here thinking, “Well, I don’t want to leave out any important ones.” He said, “Hey man, I trust you. I wrote all of them, so do your thing.” And that gave me permission to interpret [his music]. What a beautiful gift.

I would call him a mix of country, folk, blues and poetry. I think of him in terms of Gil Scott-Heron or any of the great lyricists, like Stevie Wonder. His singing style was so direct; it’s very, very country. It’s very powerful. He’s almost hollering, but he can also turn around and sing a ballad in such a beautiful, gentle, restrained way that you can tell he has knowledge of jazz. His song “Hello Like Before,” for example, is such a stunning rendition and interpretation, right up there with Nat King Cole or Billie Holiday or any of the great jazz singers.

When you listen to his lyrics, he sings about people he grew up with — his family, his community. There’s a song he did called “Family Table” that is absolutely beautiful; it talks about how much family and community meant to him. Then, in “Grandma’s Hands,” he’s talking about not only the woman who raised him, but about her impact within his community in West Virginia. That to me is the real Bill Withers, the man behind the songs.

I toured his music for two years in 40 countries, and every single person who came to those shows knew every word of “Lean on Me.” I think he gave us one of the greatest gifts of our time, an anthem of humanity and unity and friendship. That song is eternal. I think we need that message now more than ever. His songs are so durable. To me they’re the standards of the ’70s. That’s why I wanted to do the tribute to him, because he was such a constant inspiration as a singer and songwriter, and his stance within the music industry has been an incredible example.

I honestly can’t remember a time when [Withers’ music] wasn’t in my life. Every cookout, every barbecue, every family gathering, on the radio — he was the king.

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