By 1980, Bill Withers began collaborating with other artists; he subsequently scored one of the biggest hits of his career with 1981's "Just the Two of Us," a smooth track also featuring Grover Washington, Jr. A year before that single, however, Withers worked with the famed group the Crusaders on the track "Soul Shadows." The band's brand of smooth jazz-funk perfectly suits Wither's unadorned voice, resulting in a sophisticated song that should have received more attention upon its release.
Due to ongoing disputes with his label Columbia, Withers was unable to record his own albums from 1979-1985. To remain in the business, Withers made guest appearances on friends' LPs, including jazz fusion pioneers the Crusaders. Formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders, the group was enjoying the success of their 1979 album Street Life (and the hit title track, featuring Randy Crawford); by this time, the Crusaders had been reduced to three founding members Joe Sample (keyboards), Wilton Felder (sax), and Stix Hooper (drums). Their 1980 album Rhapsody and Blues boasted an impressive list of stellar musicians, including percussionists Paulinho Da Costa and Sheila E., guitarist Roland Bautista, and bassist Abraham Laboriel, Sr. The sole vocalist on Rhapsody and Blues, Withers turns in a smooth, sultry performance on the cut "Soul Shadows."
Cowritten by Sample and composer Will Jennings, "Soul Shadows" sounds moody but stands as a tribute to legends such as Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. Through his clear, unadorned vocals, Withers immediately sets the scene: "San Francisco morning coming clear and cold / Don't know if I'm waking or I'm dreaming," he softly sings. As he rides on the Super Chief (a train famed for transporting celebrities from Chicago to Los Angeles from 1936-1971), Withers muses on Waller's philosophy: "He said, music's real, the rest is seeming," he says. Waller's emotions linger, and Withers states that he "left those soul shadows on my mind." After repeating the chorus, the scene changes to the narrator standing at a window overlooking San Francisco. As the fog rolls in, Withers sings, "I swear I can hear a far-off music / Jelly Roll is playing down in Storyville / And Satchmo is wailing in Chicago." Their music remains, leaving "feelings that won't go away" and "the sound of their souls in the air." Since Withers can trace his roots to classic soul and even jazz, his delivery is earnest and steeped in musical knowledge. He can communicate the message with conviction, as he did with so many songs in his catalog.
Unfortunately Rhapsody and Blues failed to repeat the success of Street Life, with critics such as AllMusic's Scott Yanow asking "does anyone remember Bill Withers' vocal on 'Soul Shadows'?" While "Soul Shadows" may not have been a huge hit, several artists have rediscovered the song and even sampled it in their own work. Dave Hollister's 1999 track "Call on Me" relies heavily on the instrumental version, while 2Pac slowed down the guitar riff and beat for his 1993 cut "Papa'z Song." In addition, Withers fans gave the track another hearing on later compilations such as Greatest Hits (1981). Songs such as "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me" continue receiving radio airplay, but the buried gem "Soul Shadows" should not be overlooked.