Just As I Am
By the time Withers recorded his debut, 1971’s Booker T.-helmed Just as I Am, he was a well-lived 32-year-old who had done time in both the armed forces and factories. The album is, without reservation, one of the greatest, most personal soul LPs ever recorded. Mixing ’70s-style singer-songwriter confessionals with ’60s Southern soul, it crossed genres and racial boundaries, topping both the pop and R&B charts, and defining a moment in early ’70s music. The huge “Ain’t No Sunshine” draws you in and then Withers’ grabs you with everyday truths, which populated the other tunes — culminating on “Better Off Dead,” where an alcoholic commits suicide after drinking away his woman and life. Yes, his songs are fraught with melancholy and sadness, sometimes with zero redemptive qualities; they’re very vérité in a sense, like life. The album feels and sounds like it had to be made, that other options were none for a West Virginian son from a tiny coal-mining town who grew up in a world of railroad yards, welfare lines, and deceitful congregations.