Bill Withers' Greatest Hits
A reunion with Bill Withers, courtesy of the Gap
Bill Withers' Greatest Hits
Bill Withers
Sony Music Entertainment
Damn those Gap ads. They're stylish, fun to look at, and with few exceptions feature insidiously infectious music. But the one which seems to stick in most viewers' minds is the "Khaki Soul" spot, which has the most memorable closing shot since the "Khaki Swing" rotating freeze-frame: a dancer in a head wrap, gliding off-screen in front of a billowing cloud of material. Despite the predominance of blue, supposedly a cool color, it's the most sensual moment to be seen in any Gap ad yet. The music, too, is sensually beautiful: the lyrics ("When I look at you / And the world's all right with me / Just one look at you / And I know it's gonna be / A lovely day") glide over the visuals like cognac. Curiously, few people know where the song comes from.

As it happens, I was one of the few who recognized the song instantly. No big feat there: Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" was as much a part of my youth as his "Just the Two of Us", "Use Me", "Ain't No Sunshine", "Lean on Me", and "Who is He and What is He to You". These songs--plus four more--are available on Bill Withers' Greatest Hits, which the Gap ads shamed me into buying.

I say "shamed" because I already owned this CD. Somewhere, somehow, I managed to lose it about six years ago, and I've procrastinated in replacing it ever since, opting instead to fill my shelves with more current music. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Brand New Heavies, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest--for six years, they all managed to make it to the checkout counter, while I told Bill to wait just another month.

Then came the Gap ads. They were on all the time. Goading me, taunting me, reminding me of where I'd gone wrong. Watching a taped program, I'd fast-forward through the ads, and back up as soon as I saw "Khaki Soul" go by. I'd revel in the visuals and the music, and a nagging part of my brain chastised me: how could you have forsaken Bill?

I couldn't take it anymore. I bought the CD, and as soon as I got home, I popped it into the player and jumped to "Lovely Day" and, after months of the Gap's teasing, finally experienced closure as I listened to the song in its entirety. (In retrospect, maybe I should have bought Lean On Me: The Best Of Bill Withers; it has 18 tracks, including everything from Greatest Hits save for "Soul Shadows".)

Something was gained by distance, though. Listening to the whole CD again for the first time in years, I had a fresh appreciation for Withers' mastery of his craft. He's at his best here when his voice dominates, leaving the music to provide only the barest of rhythms. "Lovely Day" is, well, lovely, a simple testament to the joys of a loved one's company; but the best track to sum up Withers' magic is the melancholy "Ain't No Sunshine".

A mere two minutes, "Ain't No Sunshine" is a simple tune, like most of these are, but it's sung from--and therefore touches--the soul. It's very pure: no sweeping musical ballads, no sax solos, no vaulting choruses, no ululating "Oooooh, baby". His words and his voice are all that's needed to draw out sadness and a little pain, and he makes it seem effortless. Boyz II Men and the rest of the over-emoting crowd could learn a lesson from this disc; maybe someone should slip it into Céline Dion's purse the next time she's assaulting us with "My Heart Will Go On".

Until then, I've got Bill back. It's gonna be a lovely day.

A Critical Eye exclusive (July 5, 1999)
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