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Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers

In Music
LOVELY DAY: Jose James pays homage to Bill Withers, the "Keyser Soze of Music," with a set at Stritch

LOVELY DAY: Jose James pays homage to Bill Withers, the "Keyser Soze of Music," with a set at Stritch

If for no other reason, Bill Withers achieved pop-music immortality by giving the world “Lean On Me,” the moving anthem to intimacy and loyalty that has been comforted people since its heyday as a No. 1 hit in 1972.

But Withers did so much more than “Lean On Me,” and vocalist Jose James wants the world to know it. James likens Withers to many of the greats of American songwriting, like Carole King and Bruce Springsteen.

“He’s part of the musical fabric of America,” James says. “You realize that Bill is one of those linchpins between so many things. The folk, the funk, the blues, the jazz. Bill’s a really key figure connecting so many styles and genres. Questlove loves him. D’Angelo loves him. Sting loves him. He’s behind everything. He’s like the Keyser Söze of music.”

To that end, James is leading a one-man Bill Withers revival with a new tour that comes to Cafe Stritch for two shows this weekend.

The Blue Note vocalist is known for the attention he regularly bestows upon prior generations of musicians. In 2015, he released a celebrated album of Billie Holiday songs to mark the centennial of Lady Day’s birth.

The Withers tribute came about naturally, James says, through performances while touring his most recent album of original material, Love in a Time of Madness.

“I got into a habit of doing a little vamp on the last chord of some of my songs,” he says. “Sometimes, just at the end of the song, I’d do a little ‘Love and Happiness’ by Al Green. Sometimes I’d do a little Marvin (Gaye). And sometimes we’d do a little Bill Withers. Well, the Withers piece eventually broke apart from that and turned into a medley of (Withers hits) ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ ‘Who is He?’ and ‘Grandma’s Hands.’ And pretty soon, that became a highlight of my live show.”

Unlike Holiday, Gaye and John Coltrane—to whom James has also paid musical tribute—Withers is still very much alive and well. The tour, in fact, coincides with the great singer-songwriter’s 80th birthday on July 4.

“I don’t think I’ve spent as much time preparing for any project more than this one,” James says.

Eventually, after putting together a list of 60 Withers songs for his live show, James showed super-producer and Blue Note Records President Don Was. “So, Don said, ‘Yeah, this is great. Let’s get it down to, like, 12.’”

James was perplexed. “With Bill, you could do the jazzy stuff. Or you could do all ballads. Or all the funk stuff. His catalogue is so deep you could go in a lot of different directions.”

Was had the solution to James’s problem. “He said, ‘Why don’t we just give Bill a call?’” Before long, the young hip-hop generation vocalist was sharing a steak with the ’70s era star at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood.

“It was a dream come true,” James says. “He’s just a regular dude. He did what a lot of people talk about doing: Get in, make your money and get out. He got his Grammys, his gold records. Then he was just like, that’s it. I’m actually done. I’m just fascinated with that. I mean, he lives well. He’s happy, two great kids and a wife. He may be one of the only human beings on the planet who’s done exactly what he wanted with his life.”

As for the tribute show, James eventually followed the audience. “I just began playing the stuff live to see what moved people.” He went into a deep dive in the Withers catalogue—“Lean On Me,” “Sunshine,” “Use Me” and lesser known jewels, such as “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and the arresting suicide ballad “Better Off Dead.”

“Bill’s stuff is just so emotional and direct,” James says. “There is no artifice at all in his songs. There’s nothing to hide behind. Everything is very understated, because it’s so powerful emotionally. You have to approach the material like that every night. Take ‘Lean On Me.’ You got to believe that song. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.”

Lean On Me: Jose James celebrates Bill Withers
May 12, 8pm and 10pm, $30+
Cafe Stritch, San Jose

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