Bill Withers may be known for feel-good hits such as "Lean on Me" and "Lovely Day," but he could also speak of the darker sides of love, namely jealousy and betrayal. His 1972 cut "Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?" stands as one of the finest in the soul genre, with an unforgettable bass line and guitar riff (along with quivering strings) creating a sense of paranoia along with sorrow.
For his masterpiece album Still Bill, Withers wrote most of the material. One exception is "Who Is He," a collaboration with lyricist Stanley McKinney. McKinney may have written the lyrics, but the words may have been autobiographical for Withers. At the time Withers had recently married actress Denise Nicholas, a woman who seemed the polar opposite of the singer. He was proudly from the country, while she was more cosmopolitan; unfortunately the marriage turned out to be short lived. Like another Still Bill track "Use Me," "Who Is He" hints at the turbulence in his personal life, accompanied by funky bass lines and growling vocals.
The mini-drama begins with a bluesy guitar riff and piercing electric piano as Withers sets the scene: "A man we passed just tried to stare me down," he states plainly, immediately creating a sense of unease. "And when I looked at you," he continues, followed by strings sounding straight out of a horror movie, "you looked at the ground." Clearly this rocky relationship is headed for an emotional breakdown, particularly when the strings kick in after the first time he sings the word "looked." The listener is anticipating the next act, and Withers follows through with the lines "I don't know who he is / But I think that you do." Interestingly he injects his country background into the song by singing "dadgummit" before the title phrase.
Now that he suspects infidelity, the strings increase in intensity; even the tambourine harshly accents each beat, emulating rising anger. While Withers never raises his voice or engages in vocal acrobatics, his anger and pain resonate. "Something in my heart and in your eye / Tells me he's not someone just passing by," he calmly asserts, but his straightforward delivery suggests building jealousy. "When I add the sum of you and me / I get confused when I keep coming up with three." The drama accelerates when he repeatedly stutters the line "You're too much," leading to the frustration of the last verse: "Before you wreck your old home / Be certain of the new." Throughout "Who Is He" the guitar gradually takes a more prominent role, adding to the feeling of tension and quiet rage.
Withers possesses a powerful instrument--his voice--and he uses it judiciously. He never oversings or attempts to showcase his entire range in one line. Instead his voice bubbles under, building up to the climactic moment. In turn, listeners hang on his every word, wanting to hear the story's conclusion. In this way, Withers exemplifies not only effective soul singing, but singing in general. "Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?" has inspired covers, most notably Me'Shell NdegéOcello's faithful version from 1996. She varies little from the original--a wise move, considering the song's original minimalist production. Like Withers himself, "Who Is He" remains timeless.