Bill Withers was an unlikely hero. He grew up in Slab Fork, West Virginia, light years away from any music capitol. He enlisted in the Navy, but he wasn’t a one tour guy. He stayed in the service for nine years. He was nearly 30 years old by the time he was discharged and move to Los Angeles to seek a career in music. But it didn’t happen for him overnight. Withers worked in an an aircraft assembly factory by day, and played in the clubs at night. He was 32 years-old when he signed with Sussex Records, which released his debut album the following year. As I said, an unlikely hero.
But a hero he was. Once that first album came, Just As I Am, came out, Withers was a juggernaut, dropping hit after hit onto the charts. The hits kept coming until well into the ’80s, and then Withers, unhappy with being pushed around by record company suits, simply walked away and never looked back. His legend firmly established, Withers was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Withers’ 1972 album Still Bill included a track called “Who Is He, and What Is He to You.” Although never a hit single, the funky track became a favorite among Bill Withers fans, and continues to influence musicians to this day. Among those musicians at the time were a group of L.A. session singers that included Barbara Berryman, Barbara Lewis, Don Wyatt, Steve Flanagan, and Celeste Rose. In 1972, they put together a group they called Creative Source, and took on Ron Towson of the Fifth Dimension as their manager.
Creative Source first hit the R&B chart in 1973 with “You Can’t Hide Love,” which reached the Top 50. But it is their cover of “Who Is He and What Is He to You” that they are remembered for. Released in 1974, the single was made it to #21 on the R&B chart, and crossed over to #69 on the pop chart.
The group released four albums in a period of two years, but follow-up singles like “You’re Too Good to be True,” “Pass the Feelin’ On” barely scraped into the Top 100 on the R&B chart, and “I’d Find You Anywhere” failed to chart at all in 1976. Creative Source had a fair shot. They had deals with Sussex, which had pushed Withers to the forefront early on, and Polydor, a major international label.
Dogged by the failure of their last three singles, Creative Source found themselves without a record deal in 1977, and disbanded. Ironically, if they had stuck with the formula they established with the Withers cover, recording ultra-funky vocal and extended, largely instrumental versions of the song, they might have found more success.
As for Withers, he’s still Bill.