Singer, songwriter, and lifelong fan José James honors the great Bill Withers with the Blue Note release Lean On Me, a loving tribute album (releasing September 28) featuring 12 of the legendary singer's most undeniable and soulful songs. Produced by Blue Note president Don Was, Lean On Me was recorded in Capitol's iconic Studio B with the dream team band of Pino Palladino (bass), Kris Bowers (keys), Brad Allen Williams (guitar), and Nate Smith (drums). ArkivJazz spoke with James about the genesis of this project and his approach to interpreting the material.
ArkivJazz: I’ve listened to Lean On Me several times, and it’s a really powerful statement about you as an artist and about Bill Withers as a composer. Where did you first get to know his music?
José James: Well, funny enough, it was on the radio. Growing up, my mom listened to a lot of everything, but especially a lot of AM radio and jazz stations. I was born in ’78 and can’t remember not hearing Bill Withers while growing up. It was very clear that Bill was a pillar of black music and culture at the time, along with Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Prince.
AJ: Yes, absolutely.
JJ: He was one of those guys with hits that just continued to echo in popular culture. The funny thing about this new project is that people worldwide have discovered that they are Bill Withers fans, even if they didn’t know that they were Bill Withers fans. They already love the songs. A lot of people know “Lovely Day,” or “Just the Two of Us,” but they don’t necessarily know who wrote those songs, which is absolutely fascinating to me.
AJ: Yeah, some of his songs are as close as you can come to modern standards.
AJ: On “Lean on Me,” you didn’t stray very far from the original, but you really didn’t have to.
JJ: Well, Don (Was) and I talked about it, and it was a conscious choice not to reinvent the wheel. I look at it like interpreting Shakespeare. If you’re going to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’re not going to go crazy with it.
AJ: Yes, you’re serving the words…
JJ: Right! I also had the opportunity to perform these songs live with my band earlier, before we recorded. Don (Was) came out to see three shows, and he had a clear idea of how to approach the project. I think it’s really important, especially on a project like this, to take songs out on the road to see how they hold up live. It’s like stand-up comedy, if a song dies in front of an audience, especially in front of an older Bill Withers audience, then you take it off the record. There were a lot of songs I thought were going to be on the album, which didn’t pass that test.
AJ: Oh, really?
JJ: Oh yeah. One of those was “I Want to Spend the Night.” I really thought it would work, and it just didn’t for some reason. You never really know until you play them live, so all 12 of the songs on the album were battle-tested, and I felt a deep emotional connection to each one.
AJ: Tell me about “Who is He.” It’s very powerful with a jealousy that really comes through the way you put it together.
JJ: Yeah, that one feels like you’re spinning out of control. I’ve actually been working with an acting coach ever since I was in Fifty Shades Darker, and he helped me really get inside these songs in an interesting way. He had me take the lyrics apart from the music and inhabit them as text, the way an actor would. In a song, you know the words and you know the changes, but to completely separate the text and just interpret that was really challenging for me and gave me a new window of possibilities. I think that’s the enduring quality of Bill’s lyricism in that it’s so flexible.
AJ: That’s a good way of putting it because it’s open to interpretation and gives listeners the ability to give their own perspective. “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” are probably his most played songs, and you really give them a new spin, which makes the listener want to reexamine all of his work.
JJ: I’ve been working on this project off and on for about two years. When Don said he wanted to make this album, I started methodically going through all of Bill's material and making a list of songs I couldn’t live without. I ended up with 60 songs and brought that list to Don. He said that was a great start, but we were going to have to narrow it down to 12 [laughs]. There was a huge stylistic shift over the 13 years of his recorded output, you know, going from the last of analog to the beginning of digital, and I didn’t want to leave anything out.
JJ: I knew there was going to be some pressure in narrowing the songs down, so Don suggested that we just call Bill. So, later we sat down with him, and he really put me at ease saying that they’re all great songs and whatever we wanted to do was cool. He was super cool about the whole thing.
AJ: He was respectful enough to let you go the direction you wanted to go with it. He has such strength in those tunes, it’s not like you’re going to break them.
JJ: Right, right…
AJ: Well, it has to make him happy to hear his music going forward like this, but it also seems like he’s a man who just pulled away from the music business. It sounded like he just wasn’t interested in playing the game anymore. He just came in and said what he had to say.
JJ: Yeah, that sounds right. It doesn’t even sound like it was a dramatic choice. He was a working man, working with his hands building commercial aircraft, and one day he wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine.” That song became huge and he decided to do the music thing for a while. Then, after a few years, he was done and left the business. That’s really fascinating, you know?
AJ: Yeah, there’s some genius in that.
JJ: Oh, absolutely. You know, I think of Colin Kaepernick, who had this amazing career as an athlete. He made a stand and got some pushback and you know, he’s still this amazing person in society. I think there’s something similar there, where society doesn’t really know what to do with you.
AJ: So, I must say that not only are the songs and vocals great on this recording, but the band is absolutely extraordinary. Had you worked with any of these guys before?
JJ: I’ve worked with all of them but in different capacities. I worked with Pino (Palladino) and Kris (Bowers) on No Beginning, No End, which actually had the kind of vibe that Don wanted to recapture with this project. There’s also Brad Allen Williams and Nate Smith, who are both in my current touring band. You know, it was really one of those sessions where you got a glimpse into the past, with people who love what they do and are absolute professionals. It wasn’t about us at all, it was about Bill Withers. We all love his music, and this was a chance to pay tribute to one of the good guys.
AJ: …who’s still around to enjoy it.
JJ: Yeah, there was a fun energy in the studio. It was the kind of session where no one wanted to leave, where we were all just hanging out listening to tracks. It was really cool to see Don, Pino, and Ed (Cherney) doing their thing and I really needed that mentorship from them. The rest of us just know the albums, which is fine, but there’s something different when you’ve lived through those songs and grew up hearing them as singles on the radio.
AJ: You have amazing names on this record, and it sounds like you’re all driving a car and everyone knows the direction you want to go.
JJ: Exactly, exactly…
AJ: Well, it’s been a great pleasure to speak with you. Safe travels and congratulations on this release, it’s a tremendous piece of work.
JJ: Thanks a lot, thanks for all the support!