The first time that vocalist José James covered a Bill Withers song in concert, it was around 2013. James and his band were jamming on their track “Trouble” (from his Blue Note debut album No Beginning No End), when they segued into the Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
“’Trouble’ has a funky, down-home undercurrent that lets me do my human DJ thing,” says James. “It’s where I put different songs on that beat, like ‘Love and Happiness,’ ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘Ain’t.’”
In response to fan reaction at subsequent shows, “Ain’t” eventually expanded into a 20-minute tour de force jazz/R&B Withers medley that also featured “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Five years later, that seed has sprouted more offshoots.
“When I found out that Bill was turning 80 this year,” recalls James, “I thought it would be an amazing time to do a series of concerts honoring him. Then Don [Was, president of Blue Note] said it’s going to be an album. Six months later I found myself inside Capitol’s Studio B.”
Lean on Me, released today (Sept. 28), is the culmination of James’ work in that legendary studio. Beyond the title cut and the aforementioned “Grandma’s Hands” and “Who Is He,” the 12-track set boasts additional Withers gems such as “Kissing My Love,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Better Off Dead” and “Lovely Day” featuring Lalah Hathaway. A video for “Day,” filmed in Los Angeles, is forthcoming. Check out the album trailer here:
Following a recent conversation and acoustic performance at the Grammy Museum on behalf of the album, James will resume his tribute tour on Oct. 19 in Roanoke, Virginia. Upcoming stops include Washington, D.C., New York and Tokyo.
Starting with a wish list of 65 Withers songs, James received the singer-songwriter’s blessing over dinner in Hollywood prior to recording. Adds the clearly jazzed artist, “I heard from Bill’s daughter Kori [who recently performed with James at the Hollywood Bowl] that he really enjoys the album.”
Below, James talks more about the behind-the-scenes process, the hardest Withers song to perform and sporting an Afro for the first time:
The balancing act involved in paying tribute to a legend
You have to have deep respect and reverence for the artist and, even more so, for the message. When you’re talking about artists like Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Elton John, you’re talking Mount Olympus. Where a tribute can go wrong is in the intent. It’s not about trying to outdo them. Or doing it because your career needs a boost. There has to be a why beyond the songs or an artist being cool or turning 80. It’s about how to do it in a way that’s respectful and not boring.
Don and I talked about whether we should do this because it’s sacred music. In the Trump era of #MeToo, gun control and #blacklivesmatter, there are so many hot button topics going around right now. I was born in 1978 and my mom was and still is very political. She told me about the late ‘70s, Nixon, fighting for women’s rights, etc. I feel like we’re at that moment again. Bill wasn’t a political artist per se, but a song like “Lean on Me” sung now is a very strong, non-partisan, humanistic statement I wanted to make. I don’t know if everyone will pick up on that but it’s the way I needed to do it.
Which Withers songs are the hardest and easiest to perform
They all have a challenge vocally because you’re entering another vocalist’s emotions and lyrical concept. I worked with a vocal coach — not to change the way I sing, but to technically adapt to his music. Bill is from the South so he will open up on certain vowels in a way I’m not accustomed to. It’s a very technical thing.
On “Kissing My Love,” I enjoy playing with that as an interpreter, putting my hip-hop generation swag on it. There are so many subtle layers to Bill’s music; he’s one of the most sampled artists by hip-hop. So I tried to put that feeling of today’s playful Drake energy into the song. Emotionally, “Lean on Me” is the hardest. It’s so simple in terms of arrangement and everything is on the voice. It’s soul and pop but also very much church. “Lean” is kind of my Hamlet monologue moment, a rallying call for brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s tough to do, but it’s not for me. It’s to help somebody and for a generation that hasn’t yet discovered Bill Withers.
There’s the deep album track “Family Table.” When I heard it the first time, it was so soulful and I loved the message. But when I tried it with the band, it sounded like karaoke and broke my heart. Another is “I Want to Spend the Night.” I was so sure that I was going to kill that song. But again there was nothing special about my take. I had to realize it’s not about the sound but the feeling. It was like going shopping and seeing clothing that you think is going to look great on you. Then you try it on and hate it on you.
His magnificent Afro
It’s the ultimate sign of “black is beautiful.” For better or worse, I’m known as the jazz singer for the hip-hop generation. So I was expected to do a jazzy or J Dilla version of Bill. I didn’t do either. When people see the ‘fro, the bell bottoms and that I’m using the same kind of acoustic guitar that he used, I want them to know that Bill’s music is safe in my and my band’s hands, that I respect the culture.
Plus it looks fly. In high school I had braids like Kris Kross, and I’ve also worn dreads. But this is my first Afro and I love it. It’s also a conversation starter: people just walk up, smile and say I love the hair. I’ve found an amazing barber in L.A. who has the real shears from back in the day. So I think it’s here to stay. [Laughs.]
Key career takeaway
Bill is very intuitive. He knew he had something precious [with his music]. He wanted to protect it and he did. When I’m gone, I hope people will look back at my body of work and note that JJ had something to say. And that maybe I helped a couple of people along the way.