From the Navy to a milkman to a toilet seat maker and then into the Charts - that is a brief history of Bill Withers' adult life. 'Lovely Day' was Bill's 2nd Top 20 Hit in Britain making No. 7 in February 1978.And if you find yourself amused by a song that was a hit in February appearing on a summer-themed compilation, well it's not the last time something like that will happen on this album. Like the previous track, 'Lovely Day' was a noticeably bigger hit in the UK than the USA, and came at time when his biggest American hits were already behind him. In the sleeve notes to a later re-issue of the album Menagerie, Withers admits that he was under a degree of commercial pressure, but that he didn't entirely object. "I'm not a purist. I began in Appalachia, where poverty hangs in the sky like a dark cloud that never moves." Ironically, 'Lovely Day' wasn't one of the songs he had in mind there, but it's proved one of the most enduringly popular songs of his career and although its most distinctive feature is the long note he sings in the chorus (officially the longest (genuine) sustained vocal note in a hit by a solo artist) the lyric is in a way quite typical of his worldview, with a kind of authentic positivism. By that I mean that he's not a man given to platitudes, but seems a natural optimist who's seen some tough times too and appreciates the power of a good song. There's a certain modesty about the song too that's always very appealing.
Rather like the Isley Brothers a couple of tracks ago, Withers is an act I heard so much of in my childhood (largely my Dad playing a Greatest Hits album in the car) that I was genuinely surprised to grow up and discover that there were people who'd never heard of him, or only knew his songs through cover versions. Though by no means obscure, he's a slightly underappreciated figure in the history of soul music, possibly because he doesn't fit in with any of the obvious scenes that are part of the standard narrative: he's not Motown, he's not Stax, he's not Chess, he doesn't come from Chicago, nor from the deep South. Instead, as the note hints, he was born in West Virginia's coal country, joined the military as an alternative to a life down the mines and ended up in California - another connection with the Beach Boys of course but not a traditional centre of the soul sound. He's never seemed the sort to grab for recognition or fame either, but he has a catalogue of albums that bears comparison with any of the great soul legends of this era. You really should try to find some shelf space for Complete Sussex & Columbia Album Masters.
By this time he was already in semi-retirement: he'd released his last album in 1985 but continued to tour sporadically, even making it onto Top Of The Pops for the 1988 remix of this track. Whilst the lack of further material from him is of course a disappointment, there's something decidedly admirable about a pop star who has the honesty (and, I admit, the money) to step back and say nothing when they've nothing to say.
Ironically, my knowledge of his deeper cuts makes me slightly less emotionally attached to this song because it's such a familiar one. But only slightly so because it's one of those tracks that has a smooth sort of rightness about it that never really allows you to get tired of it (the same sort of quality that 'Baker Street' has and a very few other tracks).
The one question I have to come back to is, though, how much does this really have to do with summer? Since 1986 it seems to have acquired more of that sort of connotation thanks to the aforementioned remix and to frequent sampling in summer-themed hip-hop tracks. But this original version wasn't released in summertime on either side of the Atlantic and apart from the reference to "the sunlight hurts my eyes" there's nothing directly estival about it. Really it's too good to only listen to a quarter of the year.
Couple of topical notes: 1. At time of writing a Brazillian-style reworking of the track is available as a freebie download from Google Play (I wouldn't normally mention such things but it's a timely coincidence). It's his birthday exactly a month from the date of this post.
Available on: Lovely Day: The Best Of Bill Withers