One night three years ago, during an after-hours interview at the Columbia Records office in Century City, singer/songwriter Bill Withers blurted out a blood-curdling fantasy:
"I wish I had a bomb. I'd blow this building to kingdom come! That'd teach 'em." And a smile of satisfaction lit up his face as he pictured the explosion.
That outburst occurred in the midst of Withers' "angry" period. He was fuming at Columbia because the company wouldn't let him record an album. Key executives didn't think the songs he was writing then were marketable. His last album had been " 'Bout Love," in 1980, and he had no idea when his next one would be recorded. Discussing the problem that evening, he boiled over with frustration and anger several times.
Recently, recalling those days of fury, Withers chuckled. "I can laugh at it now, but it was painful then," he admitted. "I was hurt and I cried many a day and called some people some rotten names. I was mad all the time. I was like a ticking bomb, ready to explode. I'm lucky I never really exploded. I could have done some real damage to a lot of people."
The anger may be gone but clearly not forgotten: "I was too mad for too long to forget it. It's burned out, but it's burned into my memory."
These days Withers is considerably happier. He no longer wants to bomb his record company or thrash any of its executives. He finally made an album for Columbia--"Watching You, Watching Me"--which has just been released. It's vintage Withers with a contemporary feel, mostly mellow and romantic, and certainly as good as any album he's made since the early '70s, when he had his greatest success with hit singles like "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," "Lean on Me" and "Grandma's Hands."
His new songs are full of that old Withers warmth and down-home insight. Like the finest songwriters, he is blessed with the ability to crystallize complex feelings and emotions into profoundly simple lyrics.
"I haven't changed," Withers observed. "I'm still writing soft songs about love and feelings. I know I act macho and tough and all that, but that soft part of me is still there. The anger didn't destroy it."
Though working infrequently, Withers was never down and out. He still has a house in a luxurious Beverly Hills neighborhood and has enjoyed the unwavering support of his wife and three children.
Many thought he'd never record again. The odds were against him. He had made a lot of enemies because frustration had made him surly.
A reputation for being hostile and temperamental has dogged him throughout his career. Speculating on why he's been regarded so negatively, Withers said:
"If you were from Slab Fork, W. Va., like me, wouldn't you feel out of place in this high-powered business? People didn't understand me, and I didn't understand too many of them. I wasn't difficult, I was just trying to cope--I was insecure. When you mistrust people and let them know it, they're going to be down on you. For a long time I was still learning how to play the game, and I wasn't playing it very well."
Ironically, while in limbo at Columbia, Withers was enjoying success as a vocalist on singles by instrumental artists. He sang on the Crusaders' "Soul Shadows" and Ralph MacDonald's "In the Name of Love," which earned him a 1984 Grammy nomination for best R&B vocal. His biggest achievement was doing vocals for the 1981 single "Just the Two of Us," on sax player Grover Washington Jr.'s album "Winelight." The single made the pop Top 5 and won him a Grammy for best R&B vocal.
"What do you think it was like, winning a Grammy and not being able to make my own album?" he asked. "It hurt like hell. The company (Elektra Records) that released 'Just the Two of Us' didn't even want to sign me. That hurt too."
Age has been part of Withers' problem. Though he looks younger, he'll be 47 in July. To most record executives, he's over the hill, too old to have any appeal in the pop market.
"I couldn't get a deal with any other record company," he explained. "No label wanted me--what an awful feeling that was--so I didn't have any options. If I'd wanted to get out of the Columbia contract, it would have cost me a fortune in legal fees. I didn't want to deplete my finances, since I wasn't working that much, so I had to stay with Columbia."
Why did Columbia keep him? It seemed natural for the label to drop a middle-aged artist who, by its standards, was an unproductive pain in the neck.
Denny Diante, who co-produced portions of Withers' new album, explained--in a separate interview--the label's attitude toward Withers: