Storied singer-songwriter Bill Withers has been name-checked by a host of contemporary artists from John Legend, Justin Timberlake and Robert Glasper to Aloe Blacc and James Blake. The latest to pay homage via a national tribute tour: Blue Note Records contemporary jazz and R&B artist José James.
Lean on Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers will kick off in New York City on Jan. 11. In advance of the upcoming run, James is treating fans to new live videos of two gems from the Withers songbook, “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” The double premiere follows James’ earlier video release of another Withers classic, “Better Off Dead.”
All three videos, directed by Joseph DiGiovanna, feature James jamming with the band that will accompany him on tour: Sullivan Fortner (keys), Brad Allen Williams (guitar), Ben Williams (bass) and Nate Smith (drums). And in homage to Withers’ pre-icon days as a working-class factory employee, all the videos were filmed at the Schott NYC clothing factory. Surrounded by mannequins and hanging jackets, the band is also wearing Schott products.
As for why he chose to shoot videos for “Hope” and “Same Love” in particular, James references Withers’ realness. “Bill can see both sides of the coin of love—the joy and the sorrow,” James tells Billboard. “The wish for an ex-lover to be happy? That’s deep.”
Watch “Hope She’ll Be Happier”:
Watch “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”:
Prior to filming the videos, James had been performing a medley of Withers songs during his concerts for several years. It started with a vamp of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and then ultimately morphed into a 20- to 30-minute segment that included “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me” and “Just the Two of Us.” Fans’ enthusiastic response sparked the idea to help mark Withers’ 80th birthday next July with a national tribute tour.
At the same time, James didn’t want to get it wrong. So the singer/songwriter/musician asked Blue Note president Don Was about his song choices. “Don was like, ‘Looks cool to me but why don’t we ask Bill?’ Cue my jaw dropping,” recalls James. “The next thing I know, I’m at Musso & Frank Grill [in Hollywood] having dinner with Bill and hearing amazing stories about James Brown, Donny Hathaway, the Fania All-Stars and his transformation from this guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia to an international superstar.”
Recounting how Withers rolled up to the restaurant by himself, James adds, “He’s the only artist I’ve met who has no time for flattery or compliments. He’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time; his influence on modern American music is massive. He’s seen it all but stays really humble and true to the music.”
James paid tribute to jazz diva Billie Holiday, another of his musical influences, on the 2015 album Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday. His latest studio outing is Love in a Time of Madness. The album was released last February just after James’ appearance on the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack.
In addition to his Lean on Me tour dates, James will perform a four-night run of shows at New York City’s Blue Note Jazz Club in February to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his critically acclaimed debut album, The Dreamer. For additional tour information, visit http://www.josejamesmusic.com/.
José James tour dates:
1/11: New York, NY @ Le Poisson Rouge*
1/27-2/3: Blue Note at Sea Cruise*
2/5: New York, NY @ Blue Note Jazz Club^
2/6: New York, NY @ Blue Note Jazz Club^
2/7: New York, NY @ Blue Note Jazz Club^
2/8: New York, NY @ Blue Note Jazz Club^
3/2: South Orange, NJ @ South Orange Performing Arts Center*
3/3: Washington, DC @ Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater*
3/4: Port Washington, NY @ Landmark on Main Street*
3/16: Aspen, CO @ JAS Cafe*
3/17: Aspen, CO @ JAS Cafe*
5/10: Santa Cruz, CA @ Kuumbwa Jazz Center*
5/11: San Francisco, CA @ SFJAZZ, Miner Auditorium*
5/14: Seattle, WA @ Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley*
5/15: Seattle, WA @ Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley*
5/16: Seattle, WA @ Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley*
* Lean On Me: José James Celebrates Bill Withers Shows
^ The Dreamer 10th Anniversary Shows