During early 1970, Withers’ demonstration tape was auditioned favorably by Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records. Avant signed Withers to a record deal and assigned former Stax Records stalwart Booker T. Jones to produce Withers’ first album. Four three-hour studio sessions were planned to record the album, but funding caused the album to be recorded in three sessions with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” as singles. The album features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar.
The album was a success and Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap.
At the 14th annual Grammy Awards on Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The track had already sold over one million copies and was awarded a platinum disc by the RIAA in September 1971.
During a hiatus from touring, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill. The single, “Lean on Me” went to number one the week of July 8, 1972. It was Withers’ second gold single with confirmed sales in excess of three million. His follow-up, “Use Me” released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place on October 12, 1972. His performance at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, was recorded, and released as the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall on November 30, 1972. In 1974, Withers recorded the album +’Justments. Due to a legal dispute with the Sussex company, Withers was unable to record for some time thereafter.
During this time, he wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record I Feel a Song, and in October 1974 performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B. B. King four weeks prior to the historic Rumble in the Jungle fight between Foreman and Ali in Zaire. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack. Other footage of his performance is included in the 2008 documentary film Soul Power which is based on archival footage of the 1974 Zaire concert.
Watch “Use Me – Bill Withers (1972)” on YouTube