Bill Withers' first two albums were arguably his best works, his most personal and unaffected music with a distinctive sound by virtue of their lean production, especially his debut, Just As I Am. At the turn of the 1960s into the 1970s, he was a unique presence, as we're reminded by this Raven Records two-LP-on-one-CD package. Withers' first album is otherwise unavailable on CD, and the mastering here brings the audio quality up dramatically, making the listening experience close and intimate, almost like a private studio performance. Withers' songs are so personal that they only gain intensity from this treatment – not just the original songs, such as "Ain't No Sunshine" or "Grandma's Hands," but even his cover of "Let It Be." The only real decision that fans will have to make concerns his second album, Still Bill, which is available in the United States with two live bonus tracks; for anyone owning this disc, buying Sony's domestic release of that album may prove superfluous. As an added enticement, Raven has also included bonus tracks of "Better Days," from the soundtrack to the movie Man and Boy, and a version of "It's All Over Now," by Withers and Bobby Womack.
By the time Bill Withers made this, his debut recording, he'd already served for many years in the US Navy, had a job as a milkman and installed toilets in jets for American airplane construction companies. All the while, he bombarded record companies with self-produced demo tapes that landed in the dustbin. In 1971 came his breakthrough when the successful producer Booker T. Jones hauled him onboard and sent him into the studio with guitarist Stephen Stills, drummer Al Jackson and bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn. In his debut album, Withers demonstrates his universal, mature competence as a singer, composer and performer, which was hardly surpassed in his later recordings.