“Let Me In Your Life” marks the only crossover between Aretha Franklin and the late, great Bill Withers. After Bill’s passing I couldn’t help but revisit “Let Me In Your Life” and be sure to include it in this project. It wasn’t on my original list, but Bill’s version encouraged me to discuss and dissect Aretha’s.
Bill Withers wrote and recorded “Let Me In Your Life” as a heartfelt ballad on his 1972 sophomore LP, Still Bill. Bill floats away with a beautiful orchestral arrangement, and remains grounded with a simple, acoustic guitar. He also performed it during the Carnegie Hall show in late 1972 that became 1973’s Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall.
During that Carnegie Hall show, Bill discussed many of the songs before he performed them, including “Let Me In Your Life.” He explained that “Let Me In Your Life” was written about relationships, specifically, for people in their early 30’s. The song speaks to the complexities of the baggage people carry with them by that point in their life, and how they project those past experiences onto those they’re currently nearly-entangled with.
It’s unclear how Aretha came to record the track, who brought it to table during recording sessions, and which version they’d been acquainted with. However, something about the track made an impression and it got recorded. David Nathan, who authored liner notes to the first pressing of Let Me In Your Life on CD in 1993, provided further insight. He learned that of the three songs recorded in that day’s session (the other two being “Love Letters” and Etta James’ “At Last”, which remained unreleased until 2007’s Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul), “Let Me In Your Life” was the only cut that made the album. It also became the album’s title and opening cut. Aretha completely abandons Bill’s arrangement of “Let Me In Your Life’’ as a ballad and reimagines it as an uptempo. “Let Me In Your Life” was the only uptempo song recorded that day. There was, however, a theme through between those three songs: love.
“Let Me In Your Life” is one of the few instances where I prefer another version of a song over Aretha’s. The one thing I’ve come to learn about Bill Withers as I’ve explored his music: the power he drew from simplicity. The slow tempo and sparse arrangement of Bill’s original version draw focus to the lyrics and the understated soulfulness of his voice, punctuated by the folksy acoustic guitar and sporadic swelling of the strings. His message feels natural, with just enough urgency.
It’s not that anything is wrong with Aretha’s version. She gives it a well-arranged, modern R&B makeover, with touches of contemporary funk. The strings remain, and add a sweetness to her take on Bill’s beautiful ballad. Her conviction is, as always, earthy and powerful. But Bill’s simplicity does what few others could ever do: trump Aretha.
Listen to Aretha’s funky interpretation of “Let Me In Your Life”
Nathan, David. Let Me In Your Life. Liner Notes. Rhino Records. 1993. CD
I hope I’m not rendering myself the peanut gallery, I am indeed a fan. I certainly agree that Withers’ minimalist arrangement suits the song best, but I can only imagine what Aretha would’ve done differently with a stripped-down acoustic version. She would’ve wrung it dry (in the best way possible), maybe something reminiscent of “Are You Leaving Me?” or “I’m Your Speed.”