The jazz star is in the middle of a two year project, paying tribute to one of his musical heroes.

I’d forgotten how much I love Bill Withers until I saw José James play 90 minutes of wall-to-wall Withers at London’s Union Chapel. James is on a year long mission to honour one of his musical idols. He’s spent the best part of 2018 playing his favourite songs from the Bill Withers songbook, and is set to release an accompanying album, Lean On Me, on 28 September. 

James is no stranger to London: he was based in the capital about a decade ago, and was “discovered” by the DJ Gilles Peterson who signed him to his Brownswood label. He released his first full-length album, Dreamer, a decade ago and has since gone on to become one of the hottest names in modern jazz. 

Fast forward 10 years, and with several excellent albums under his belt, James has taken the unusual step of spending a whole year covering someone else’s music. Sure, for artists on the wane, a cover album (or, if you’re Barry Manilow or Rod Stewart, a whole series of cover albums) might be the answer to flagging record and concert sales. But for an artist of such creativity and imagination, this at first felt like an unusual step. 

For James, however, it’s clear that this isn’t an exercise in selling albums or gig tickets. He really does love the music of Bill Withers. And who doesn’t? It’s one of the greatest songbooks in soul and pop music, but arguably it’s one that has been somewhat forgotten over the years. Unlike the the greats such as Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder (or even Lionel Richie), Bill Withers never really received the fame or acclaim that he rightly deserves.  

Bill Withers started his music career later in life than most. Born in Slab Fork, Virginia, a small coal mining town, Withers didn’t have the greatest start in life. He grew up poor. He grew up with a stutter and struggled to make friends. By the time he was 13 his Dad had died. He then enlisted in the US Navy when he was 18, and left in 1965. He tried to start a career in music, but worked manual labour jobs to get by, including famously making toilet seats for commercial planes. His fortune would change in 1970 when some demo tapes he recorded landed at Sussex Records, who signed Withers to the label and hired Booker T Jones, of Booker T & The MGs, to produce his debut album. The result, Just As I Am, was a masterpiece. For the next decade Withers would be one of the top names in soul music.

Then, in 1985, Withers left the business. Annoyed at how the industry worked and how his label refused to support and promote him, he quit. Since then he’s been in a self-imposed exile from the music business. We haven’t had any new material since his Watching You, Watching Me album. The closest we got to new music was a song he wrote with his daughter Kori (an equally talented vocalist – check out her duet with Booker T. Jones) called ‘A Telephone Call Away‘, which he gave to George Benson to record.

Not recording anything in decades isn’t necessarily that unusual – the Four Tops have toured every year since their last album came out in 1989 – but Withers hasn’t even toured. He simply grew tired of the business, and walked away. He’s never been tempted back.

Withers’ retirement has allowed his contribution to popular music to be somewhat forgotten. Sure, you’re bound to hear ‘Lovely Day‘ or ‘Ain’t No Sunshine‘ on the likes of Smooth Radio or Heart, but you’re unlikely to encounter any of his deeper material. You’re unlikely to be struck at how brilliant the Bill Withers songbook really is.

Thankfully, we have Jose James, a super fan, who has dedicated years of his life to pay hommage to Withers. James is a very impressive artist who appears to know no musical bounds, combining elements of soul, R&B, hip-hop, jazz and more in his music. He’s also no stranger to a tribute album: he marked Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday with a fine album covering her best known songs.

James appearance in London formed part of a brief but hectic European tour in support the album release. But James and his tight four piece band didn’t appear fatigued; in fact, they were well on it for a grey Monday night. Backed by a crack 4-piece band consisting of Nate Smiths (drums), Takeshi Ohbayashi (keys), Robin Mullarkey (bass) and Brad Allen Williams (guitar), James gave a memorable performance, making the Bill Withers songbook his own. This was no run-of-the-mill, tacky small theatre tribute of your favourite singer’s hits. No, this was one of the brightest jazz/soul stars of today paying tribute to an under-appreciated legend of soul.

Tackling the Bill Withers songbook is undoubtedly a daunting task. As James told the crowd at the Union Chapel, where do you start picking songs? James opted mostly for the classics, with a couple of rarer numbers thrown in, and largely stays true to the original arrangements. After all, why mess with perfection? Yet, James and his band still nevertheless managed to give these classics a new, fresher sound. Their arrangements packed a punch. This subtle re-working of these well-known and well-loved classics helped James avoid the pitfalls of merely replicating what’s gone before. Sure, it was a retro affair (James even has a ‘70s style afro now), but James didn’t rely on nostalgia to see him through. 

Opening with a delightful performance of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, it was clear this was a special performance. The original version barely lasts 3 minutes, but James somehow managed to double the song’s length, helped by a tasty, if lengthy, guitar solo from Williams. In fact, Williams had most of the solos during the performance, leading James to quip that he was letting him have them all as it was his birthday. The rest of the band were equally impressive, with Ohbayashi on the keys and Mullarkey doing a sterling job anchoring the groove.

Grandma’s Hand’s‘ followed, as did most of Wither’s greatest hits: ‘Use Me‘ was exceptionally funky as was ‘Who Is he (And What Is He To You)‘, while ‘Lean On Me‘ became a poignant sing-a-long.

Perhaps the best moment in the set was a phenomenal rendition of ‘Hello Like Before‘, one the greatest compositions Withers ever wrote. The song tells more than the usual “She left me/Life is sad” formula. Instead, the song tells the more intricate “I loved her/we split/I was over it/oh look, there she is/I’m not over it” story. Obviously, Withers and James tell it better than I do, but hopefully you get the point. In the hands of James and his band, it was one of the highlights of the evening. 

Keeping time on the drums was the incredible Nate Smith, who is a drumming powerhouse. James made a point of introducing him and his current album, before leaving the stage along with the other band members, allowing Smith a lengthy drum solo. While I can leave most drum solos, I was captivated by Smith’s unique style and creativity – and was even more impressed when the band suddenly re-emerged and instantly went into ‘Kissing My Love’, one of my favourite Withers songs. 

As the set drew to a close, James whipped out two fan favourites: the beautiful ‘Just The Two Of Us’ (Williams’ guitar substituted for the sax of Grover Washington Jr) and the UK favourite ‘Lovely Day’. A joyous finale to what had been an incredibly entertaining set. 

While the soul community continues to mourn the loss of Aretha Franklin, José James shows us what we should really be doing: paying tribute to the greats while they’re still here.  James took time out of singing to tell us of the time that he and his producer Don Was spent three hours over dinner with Withers in L.A., listening to the icon speak about this music. It’s clear from hearing James speak that he adores both the man and the music, and understandably so.

Bill Withers might not have recorded or performed for decades, but his music is still amongst the best in the soul genre. José James has done us the favour of reminding us of that.