By 1975, Bill Withers was at a professional crossroads. His previous record label, Sussex, had collapsed, forcing him to sign with Columbia. While he subsequently released albums containing hits such as "Lovely Day" and "I Want to Spend the Night," Withers was unhappy with the label. He felt he had lost control over his material, thus in the late 70s/early 80s he focused on collaborations with the Crusaders and Grover Washington, Jr. After the unhappy experience recording 1985's Watching You Watching Me, Withers would depart Columbia and struggle with career direction. Before that stage, however, Withers seemed to be off to a promising start with 1975's Making Music, a collection of smooth funk and slow jams. The collection may lack the political commentary of his earlier work, but it still showcases Withers' warm vocals and intimate composition style. No track better illustrates both qualities than the melancholy "Hello Like Before."
In a 2011 interview with A.V. Club, Withers explained that the title derives from an expression he often uses. "I think that what people write is just a function of their personality. I've said stuff like 'Hello like before,'" Withers said. "But when I was a kid, if I was an English class, and we had to write out a little composition, a lot of times mine would get read aloud, because maybe I had a different way of saying things. I think that's a function of personality." In addition, Withers aimed for writing songs that evoked simplicity, directness, and originality . "One thing that I said once, that I've never heard anybody say before or since 'Hello like before.' That's one of my favorite things that ever crossed my mind," he told Songfacts. "Try saying that in any shorter form, you can't do it. So when I say I'm a snob lyrically, that means, OK, the gauntlet is down--how clear can you make it and in how few words."
Featuring a hint of Brazilian rhythms, Withers tells the story of encountering a past love, recreating their conversation. He expresses ambivalence ("I'd never come here if I'd known that you were here") but also wishes her well. The most interesting lyrical passage occurs when he reflects on how they have grown intellectually and emotionally. "I hope we've grown 'cause we were only children then / For laughs I guess we both can say 'I knew you when' / But then again, that's kiss and tell." In other words, Withers will not share intimate details with the listener, or perhaps the experiences are simply too fresh and painful to recount. He admits that he knew the day would come when they would meet again, but states that their reunion may not be what he had envisioned: "I guess it's different 'cause we know each other now," he croons, perhaps alluding to the maturity they did not possess when they first met.
Strings heighten the drama, but never overpower the arrangement. Keyboards courtesy of the great Dave Grusin accent the lingering feeling of regret, while Ernie Watt's searing sax solo communicates the attraction remaining between the former couple. Withers wisely tells the story as a virtual dialogue (we never hear the woman's responses, but can imagine them) rather than simply stating what happened and how he feels. The story unfolds as the song progresses. As is typical of Withers' style, his vocals are clear but forthright, even lapsing into conversation on lines such as "but then again that's kiss and tell." His natural delivery makes the scene portrayed in "Hello Like Before" come to life.
Artful simplicity and genuine emotion: these phrases best summarize Withers' unique gifts and ability to enthrall listeners over 40 years later.