On this day in music history: May 14, 1971 – “Just As I Am”, the debut album by Bill Withers is released. Produced by Booker T. Jones, it is recorded at Wally Heider Studio 3 and Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood, CA in July 1970 and January 1971. Harboring a passion for music since childhood, but painfully shy and a chronic stutterer, it is not until after Bill Withers spends a decade in the Navy, that he decides to pursue his dream. He relocates to Los Angeles, working days at an aircraft assembly plant, and writing songs at night. Withers saves his money to record demos. Nearly thirty, the executives he encounters are dismissive, telling him “he’s too old to make it in the music business”. Unwilling to give up, he keeps trying, when his luck changes. In 1970, Bill meets Ray Jackson of Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Jackson offers to help him record more demos. Ray plays them for Forest Hamilton, the son of jazz drummer Chico Hamilton. Forest introduces Withers to Clarence Avant, the founder of Sussex Records who offers to sign him. Avant pairs Bill with Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & The MG’s) to produce. Jones enlists his band mates Al Jackson, Jr. (drums) and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) to back Withers. Jones also invites his friend Stephen Stills to sit in and play. They originally intend to record the album in four three hour sessions. Things do not go as planned, when they are kicked out of the studio after Sussex runs out of funds. Six months goes by before recording resumes. They relocate to Sunset Sound with Jim Keltner (drums), Chris Etheridge (bass) and Bobbye Hall (percussion). Recorded for the paltry sum of only $3,600, the cover of “Just As I Am” features a photo of Withers standing outside of the factory where he was still working. The course of his life changes forever with the release of “Ain’t No Sunshine” (#3 Pop, #6 R&B, #2 AC), inspired by the film “The Days Of Wine And Roses”. It becomes a multi-format smash, going Gold by September. Receiving great praise for his honest and heartfelt songs, at thirty three, Bill Withers becomes a star, earning three Grammy nominations in 1972, and winning Best R&B Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The follow up “Grandma’s Hands” (#42 Pop, #18 R&B, #16 AC) is also a hit, later becoming the basis of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”. First released on CD in the early 90’s, it is remastered and reissued as a DualDisc/DVD-A disc with the DVD side featuring a 5.1 Surround remix and a documentary on the making of the record, along with three live television performances. It is remastered again in 2012 as part of “The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums” box set and on vinyl by 4 Men With Beards and Music On Vinyl. “Just As I Am” peaks at number five on the Billboard R&B album chart, number thirty nine on the Top 200.
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