Gem of the Week: “Use Me”-Bill Withers


Song: “Use Me”

Artist: Bill Withers

Album: Still Bill (1972)

The dusky-voiced soul behind some of the sleekest R&B singles of the ’70s, Bill Withers should probably be known for more than just “Lean on Me”, the solo artist’s trademark ballad.

Withers started up in 1970, his breakout studio album, Just As I Am, releasing in 1971. His first LP offering was nothing close to elementary, seasoned with bluesy, groove-thick tracks like the aching “Ain’t No Sunshine”, a gospel-fied cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”, and the bass-thumping spiritual, “Grandma’s Hands”. The album had start-to-finish, melodic quality about it—every part decked out in Withers’ deep-roots soul energy. It likewise attained social value with its substance, almost every other track addressing human struggles and contemporary race relations in stirring, heartfelt verses.

The album’s 1972 successor was Still Bill, a work that can be considered nearly an extension to his first, what with “Lean On Me” and its relational social concern to tracks like “Harlem” and “Better Off Dead”. Yet, Still Bill left a little more room for Withers’ love life gripes on it.

“Use Me”, under its sly funk exterior, is a song as self-deprecating as they come. Withers owns up to “bein’ used”—but for the sake of this foxy, beguiling lady —is totally content with such treatment. It’s only his peers, from buddies to brother–and their growing concern–that seem to shake Withers up: (“I’m sure he meant well, yeah, but when our talk was through/ I said, brother, if you only knew…you’d wish that you were in my shoes..”).

Withers’ female-inflicted exploitation draws listeners’ sympathy, but only at first; once coupled with the instrumental’s head-bobbing, rat-a-tat drum riff and warp-y Hohner Clavinet keyboarding, it’s hard to take matters any more serious than Bill does. Plus, he’s really just as guilty; (“It ain’t too bad the way you’re usin’ me/ Cause I sure am usin’ you to do the things you do”) is his smirking exit line.

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