Tuesday, 11 February 2014

“The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums” by BILL WITHERS (2012 Sony Music/Legacy 9-CD Mini Box Set Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"…A Lovely Day…"

Columbia have many world-class box sets in their "Complete Album Series" – but you'd have to say that this BILL WITHERS winner is just a little bit more special than most. And with a thoroughly deserved Grammy win under the belt - it’s time to review the great Soul Man’s legacy...

Released November 2012 in the UK and USA - "The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums" by BILL WITHERS is a 9-CD Mini Box Set with a 40-page booklet on Sony Music/Legacy 88697894672 (Barcode 886978946720) and breaks down as follows:

Disc 1 (35:37 minutes)
1. Harlem
2. Ain’t No Sunshine
3. Grandma’s Hands
4. Sweet Wanomi
5. Everybody’s Talkin'
6. Do It Good
7. Hope She’ll Be Happier – [Side 2]
8. Let It Be Me
9. I’m Her Daddy
10. In My Heart
11. Moanin' And Groanin'
12. Better Off Dead
Tracks 1 to 12 are his debut album "Just As I Am" – released May 1971 on Sussex SXBS-7006 in the USA and A&M/Sussex AMLS 65002 in the UK.

Disc 2 (36:14 minutes):
1. Lonely Town, Lonely Street
2. Let Me In Your Life
3. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?
4. Use Me
5. Lean On Me
6. Kissing My Love – [Side 2]
7. I Don’t Know
8. Another Day To Run
9. I Don’t Want You On My Mind
10. Take It All In And Check It All Out
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 2nd studio album "Still Bill" – released May 1972 on Sussex SXBS 7014 in the USA and A&M/Sussex AMLS 68107 in the UK

Disc 3 (77:09 Minutes):
1. Use Me (Live)
2. Friend Of Mine (Live)
3. Ain’t No Sunshine (Live)
4. Grandma’s Hands (Live)
5. World Keeps Going Around (Live) - [Side 2]
6. Let Me In Your Life (Live)
7. Better Off Dead (Live)
8. For My Friend (Live)
9. I Can’t Write Left Handed (Live) - [Side 3]
10. Lean On Me (Live)
11. Lonely Town Lonely Street (Live)
12. Hope She’ll Be Happier (Live)
13. Let Us Love (Live) – [Side 4]
14. Harlem/Cold Baloney (Live)
Tracks 1 to 13 are the live double album "Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall" – released April 1973 on Sussex SXBS 7025-2 in the USA and A&M/Sussex AMLD 3001 in the UK

Disc 4 (37:36 minutes):
1. You
2. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
3. Stories
4. Green Grass
5. Ruby Lee
6. Heartbreak Road – [Side 2]
7. Can We Pretend
8. Liza
9. Make A Smile For Me
10. Railroad Man
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 3rd studio album "+ 'Justments" – released March 1974 on Sussex SRA 8032 in the USA and A&M/Sussex AMLH 68230 in the UK

Disc 5 (43:51 minutes):
1. I Wish You Well
2. The Best You Can
3. Make Love To Your Mind
4. I Love You Dawn
5. She’s Lonely
6. Sometimes A Song – [Side 2]
7. Paint Your Pretty Picture
8. Family Table
9. Don’t You Want To Stay?
10. Hello Like Before
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 4th studio album "Making Music" – released October 1975 on Columbia PC 33704 in the USA and CBS 69183 in the UK

Disc 6 (41:03 minutes):
1. Close To Me
2. Naked & Warm (Heaven! Oh! Heaven!)
3. Where Are You
4. Dreams
5. If I Didn’t Mean You Well – [Side 2]
6. I’ll Be With You
7. City Of The Angels
8. My Imagination
Tracks 1 to 8 are his 5th studio album "Naked & Warm" – released October 1976 on Columbia PC 34327 in the USA and December 1976 in the UK on CBS 81580

Disc 7 (38:26 minutes):
1. Lovely day
2. I Want To Spend The Night
3. Lovely Night For Dancing
4. Then You Smile At Me
5. She Wants To (Get On Down)
6. It Ain’t Because Of Me Baby
7. Tender Things
8. Wintertime
9. Let Me Be The One You Need
Tracks 1 to 9 are his 6th studio album "Menagerie" – released October 1977 on Columbia JC 34903 in the USA and January 1978 in the UK on CBS S CBS 82265

Disc 8 (39:03 minutes):
1. All Because Of You
2. Dedicated To You My Love
3. Don’t It Make It Better
4. You Got The Stuff
5. Look To Each Other For Love
6. Love
7. Love is
8. Memories Are That Way
Tracks 1 to 8 are his 7th studio album "'Bout Love" – released March 1979 in the USA on Columbia JC 35596 and in the UK on CBS S CBS 83176

Disc 9 (45:11 minutes):
1. Oh Yeah!
2. Something That Turns You On
3. Don’t Make Me Wait
4. Heart In Your Life
5. Watching You Watching Me
6. We Could Be Sweet Lovers
7. You Just Can’t Smile It Away
8. Steppin' Right Along
9. Whatever Happens
10. You Try To Find A Love
Tracks 1 to 10 are his 8th studio album "Watching You Watching Me" – released May 1985 in the USA on Columbia FC 39887

The attention to detail is pleasing - the first 4 discs sport the Sussex label as per the original vinyl albums while the following five have the red Columbia labels. "Still Bill" has its 'opening doors' front sleeve while the double "Live At Carnegie Hall" also has its original gatefold reproduced. Each card sleeve is now bordered in white but it looks and feels classy (even if the print is tiny). The chunky 40-page booklet doesn’t scrimp on detail either - track-by-track annotation with photos of the albums, rare music press adverts, liner notes by Michael Eric Dyson and even a letter from the great man himself at the beginning about his long musical journey.

But the big news for fans is the stunning new remastered sound carried out by a trio of engineers - MARK WILDER for 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 with 1, 2 and 7 handled by JOSEPH M. PALMACCIO and 3 done by TOM RUFF. Original analogue master tapes have been used in all transfers and what a job they’ve done... Right from the opening acoustic strum of “Harlem” on his fabulous debut album “Just As I Am” and onto the gutsy pump of “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” which opens the equally brill follow up LP “Still Bill” - the sound quality is truly glorious throughout. Beautiful feel - space around the instruments - clarity - warm bass - not to over-trebled - it’s a top notch job done and makes you re-hear all those wonderful songs anew. 

And then you’re hit by that other thing - the sheer wall-to-wall class of his songwriting - properly soulful tunes that etch their way into your heart and won’t leave. And then there’s thrill number three - the stuff you haven’t heard - the discoveries... “Better Off Dead” (a B-side to “Lean On Me” in the UK in August 1972) and “Do It Good” both off the debut - “Kissing My Love” and “Take It All In And Check It All Out” off “Still Bill” - the cool groove of “Ruby Lee” (covered by Joe Cocker on his “Sheffield Steel” album from 1982) and the beautiful “Hello Like Before” both off the massively underrated "+ 'Justments" LP - all of it screams out to be reappraised and loved again.

Like 1972‘s single “Donny Hathaway Live” LP - 1973‘s “Carnegie Hall” vinyl double has garnished a legendary reputation amongst soul aficionados. Intimate with his audience despite the venue size - a band cooking - songs that sway and groove. Five of its mainly mellow fourteen are exclusive - the impassioned love songs "Friend Of Mine" and "Let Us Love", the acoustic old-man weariness of "World Keeps Going Around", the aching anti-war song "I Can't Write Left-Handed" and "Cold Baloney" which is worked into a 14 minute encore with "Harlem". "Carnegie Hall" is a whole heap of magic and you can literally feel the audience filing it into their memory banks.

It’s also pleasing to hear that even into the late Seventies and Eighties - he never lost his knack for a tune - the pretty “My Imagination” from “Naked & Warm”,  the "trying to make us happy..." vibe to the finger-tapping “Look To Each For Love” from "'Bout Love" and the funky dancer "Steppin' Right Along" from “Watching You Watching Me”. The only bum note (if you could call it that) is that Page 13 shows us the rare picture sleeve of the Christmas 1972 US 7” single for “The Gift Of Giving b/w Let Us Love” on Sussex SUX 247. To my knowledge its rare A-side has never been on CD anywhere in the world and unfortunately because this is an albums set - it isn’t included here either (when there was room). And although the look is generic to this series by Columbia - I also think the outer box is a tad naff looking. And maybe even a disc of rarities. Other than those minor niggles - it’s a feast and cheap too...

Somehow like equal giants Bobby Womack, Minnie Riperton and Donny Hathaway - Bill Withers has always been the underdog of Soul - never spoken about in the same awe-struck tones that are routinely given to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. In my book he’s always been right up there with the best of them - a world class Soul Brother - and this ludicrously good mini CD box set is a way in for us mere mortals to that musical greatness...

"I loved that old lady..." - he says to the audience as he introduces "Grandma's Hands" on "Live At Carnegie Hall". Well - we feel the same about you mate. Beautiful and then some...

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