Justin Timberlake Bows to Bill Withers at SHOF Event

(As reprinted from Billboard article by Andy Gensler, February 19, 2017)
Photos by Lester Cohen

Justin Timberlake literally got on bended knee before legendary singer-songwriter and 2005 Songwriters Hall Of Fame Inductee Bill Withers and credited his stone-cold classic "Lovely Day” with inspiring his unbeatable hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling." "It’s very serendipitous that this man is sitting with us here today,” said an effusive Timberlake.

It was one of many unscripted moments at a revealing and rollicking panel discussion and screening of the movie Trolls for which Timberlake was the executive producer of music. Presented by the Songwriters Hall of Fame West Coast Committee for an audience of SHOF and Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences members at the 20th Century Fox Studios in West Los Angeles where it was revealed that Timberlake would perform "Can’t Stop the Feeling” at next week’s Oscar ceremony.

The dynamic panel also included a rare appearance by superstar producer Max Martin, a nominee for this year’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his fellow producer Shellback (Karl Johan Schuster) who together with Timberlake created the music for Trolls.

Following introductory remarks by Songwriters Hall of Fame West Coast committee chair Mary Jo Mennella and Universal Music Publishing Group president and SHOF board member Evan Lamberg who recounted “Can’t Stop the Feeling“‘s runaways success and welcomed Timberlake to the stage by saying “other than Michael Jackson, I think he’s going to go down as the greatest entertainer of our generation.”

This, however, was followed not by JT’s expected entrance but by the surprise appearance of Withers who unexpectedly took the stage. The soul crooner’s sudden walk-out elicited delight and awe from the hundreds who had braved a massive Los Angeles rain storm and gave Withers a standing ovation. This also meant that Timberlake marched out while Lamberg recounted Withers’ storied career -- a moment that previewed the loosey-goosey nature of the discussion.

To wit, Withers, the panel’s Songwriters Hall of Fame moderator, didn’t launch immediately into a discussion of his panel’s impressive music bona fides or Trolls but rather spoke about shoes. Timberlake and Withers, it turns out, were previously on a panel together in which the 78-year-old enviously recalled the pop singer’s stylish shoes stealing the show. “That bothered me,” he said, so for this panel he was more prepared. “I went deep into my closet and this time I broke out my 1956 Stetson Detroit pimp shoes,” Withers said proudly. Timberlake, who similarly recalled the meeting, said he decided to wear his modest Adidas Stan Smiths “out of respect.”

The word Timberlake repeated most often when describing his good fortune with the film and the smash single was “serendipity.” He dropped it when describing the call from Dreamworks and meeting with the former powerful studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg who asked him to do all the film’s music. And he used it again when at the same time he was rekindling his relationship with the great producer Max Martin for his next record and whom he hadn’t worked with since his *NSYNC days when he was 15-years-old (i.e. “a hundred-thousand years ago,” as they kept repeating).

Timberlake, who voiced the role of Branch in the animated film, said his reaction to first seeing the fantastical animated outtake was, “Whoa, look at their hair! Am I high right now?” But he especially admired Trolls’ message for young girls. Two of the film’s protagonists are heroic and brave females: Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who doesn’t conform to traditional notions of beauty.

Another serendipitous scenario involved the former head of Troll’s movie studio. “I have a very good relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg who has been the head of Dreamworks for years and years and years and years,” said Timberlake. “It felt like this was something that he wanted to be his swan song at the company [Katzenberg stepped down as head of Dreamworks Animation last August after it was acquired by Comcast]. And the movie and what they were doing with it and how cutting edge it was and how funny and irrelevant they were making it felt like a really great opportunity.”

For producers Martin and Shellback, who were in the preliminary stages of planning to work with Timberlake on his next record the timing also proved propitious. “It was an opportunity to do something not so serious,” Martin said, “it was fun." 

As laid back and loose as creating the soundtrack may have been, the Oscar-nominated trio said they “felt a lot of pressure” to create a hit song for the movie’s crescendo. This because Trolls is filled with classic jams such as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September," Lionel Richie’s “Hello," Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and the film’s emotional catharsis that is Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly’s “True Colors” that is hard to compete with.

Withers compared the pressure and competition the trio felt to create “Can’t Stop the Feeling” with what he felt opening for Donny Hathaway. “Donny was a bad dude,” Withers noted. “He was not reticent about saying ‘You better bring it tonight because I’m coming for you.” To which Withers would respond in kind. “People make each other better,” he concluded.

Withers asked if the trio faced any major changes by A&R people, an acronym for “artist and repertoire” whom the soul great disparaged as “antagonistic and redundant,” to much applause. Though the trio said there weren’t any major changes there were some lyrical adjustments. Timberlake recalled Katzenberg along with the film’s director and producers coming by the studio to read a scene in which Katzenberg himself read the part of one of Trolls’ Bergen characters. Timberlake imitated him reading it in a monster-like voice saying “Hmmmm, do you really think this will make me happy?”

Timberlake, as the film’s executive producer of music, fondly recalled working with the cast that included Gwen Stefani, James Cordon and Ariana Grande. “There was a moment I had with Anna Kendrick who is a phenomenal singer and fantastic actress,” Timberlake said. “She was singing the song at a certain pace and I was in the control room and she was in the booth and I’m saying ‘a little more like this.’ And she goes, ‘You know I feel like I’m just singing it like you and that makes you think it’s really good.’ And I said, ‘well yeah.’ But that’s the example of the relationship I had with all the actors and they all can sing their guts out. I had a very easy job when recording and producing all of them.”

As for what’s next, Timberlake mentioned he had just finished working with Woody Allen, while Martin and Shellback weren’t sure what they could mention but said they would be working with Timberlake on his next album. JT, interrupted and said, “These guys are humble, they’re working with Pink and Taylor Swift and all your favorite artists. Whoever you like that you know and whoever you like that you don’t know, in the next three years—that’s them.”