Few artists embody the very essence of soul as much as Bill Withers, a consummate singer, songwriter, and musician. His lyrics are highly personal yet universal in theme, addressing romantic, political, and familial topics. Never oversinging, his voice can soar, only to descend into a grittiness that expresses deep emotion. He implemented his gospel roots, into his blending of soul and R&B (with a touch of folk), making Withers a standout among his peers in the 1970s. While Withers has largely retired from performing, his music is everywhere, still played on the radio, used in commercials, and incorporated into films. For the next four weeks, DeepSoul salutes the unique talent of Withers, and begins with the 1977 classic "I Want to Spend the Night."
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother (his father a miner, died when Withers was 13). Not wanting to follow in his father's occupational footsteps, he enrolled in the Navy at age 17. When he eventually arrived in Los Angeles in 1967, Withers began recording demos, which led him to be introduced to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records. After signing Withers, Avant assigned the legendary Booker T. Jones to produce the 1971 album Just As I Am; this collaboration led to now classic cuts like "Ain't No Sunshine" and the stunning, autobiographical "Grandma's Hands." The following year saw the release of what is widely considered a soul masterpiece, Still Bill. Several tracks became modern standards, including the iconic "Lean on Me," "Use Me," and "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?"
In his earlier work, Withers explored the darker sides of love in cuts such as "Use Me," the anguish of poverty in "Better Off Dead," or the futility of war in "I Can't Write Left Handed." By the 1977 album Menagerie, Withers' work leaned in a distinctly romantic direction; AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine dubs the LP a "smooth album that points the way toward quiet storm while retaining a warm soulfulness." Indeed, Withers had veered away from his earlier sound and more toward a smoother, overtly romantic feel, and "I Want to Spend the Night" epitomizes that new direction.
Simply arranged with subtle strings and piano, Withers' clear voice tells of a couple unsure of their commitment to the relationship. "Every time we wind up spending the night together," he croons, "I want to spend the night with you forever." His voice stretches out the word "you" to build tension for the key word: "forever." "Do you ever feel it?" he cries.
As the gentle Latin rhythm sways, Withers approaches the bridge, further explaining his inner conflict. When his lover is away, he hugs his pillow tight, unable to sleep. When he next sees her, he realizes that "I can't keep looking at loneliness and try to call it freedom." That line alone is crucial to the song's overarching theme: is being unattached all it's cracked up to be? As the song fades out, Withers answers the question: "Do you ever want to spend the night?" he repeats, his voice rising in desperation. In other words, the narrator is ready for a long term relationship.
While never indulging in vocal acrobatics, Withers still communicates the passion and anguish of the narrator. Will the relationship ever result in commitment? The question is never answered. However, his sincere delivery and the song's tasteful arrangement keep listeners hanging on his every word, hoping for a happy ending.