The death of legendary American singer songwriter Bill Withers last week was announced just as his signature tune ‘Lean On Me” was being sang around the world, in hospitals and neighbourhoods, as an anthem of solidarity against the coronavirus pandemic.
Withers who died at the age of 81 from heart illness, was as unlikely a star as it gets: a former navy aircraft mechanic who started his music career at the age of 32 and less than a decade and a half later, quit the business, disillusioned by the confines of the recording industry.
Even the circumstances of his entry into music were bizarre. After 9 years serving in the Navy, he took up a job at a factory making toilet seats for airplanes, just as his first album was being released. On the cover of the album, he is pictured outside the factory, holding his packed lunch.
“I got two letters, one recalling me back to my job at the factory after I had been laid off and another inviting me to the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, “ he recalls in the autobiographical documentary “Still Bill”
That appearance on the top rated American TV show pushed his debut single “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the US Top 10 charts, followed shortly after by “Grandma’s Hands” an ode to the protection and nurturing force of his grandmother.
Bill Withers became a national star as his 1972 single “Lean On Me” a song that celebrates friendship and support became an anthem in America and across the world.
He was among a group of U.S musicians including James Brown and B.B King that travelled to the former Zaire in 1974 for the concert preceding the ‘Rumble In the Jungle’ world heavyweight title boxing fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman.
Throughout his music career, Withers was not comfortable with record companies, what he called a “bunch of executives trying to tell you what to do with their goofy suggestions”
He wanted to make music on his own terms and his first hit record “Ain’t No Sunshine” had no intro, it went straight to the vocals and instead of singing about romantic love, he wrote a song about the power of friendship, “Lean On Me”
The last of six children William Harrison Withers Jr. came from a poor rural area of West Virginia, Withers was born with a severe stutter and struggled to fit in with other children, one of his teachers told him he was ‘handicapped’
He enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1956, and overcame his stutter through speech therapy. After serving for nine years as an aircraft mechanic, he quit in 1965 and took a job at a factory that made parts for aircraft.
His life took a turn when he visited a club where legendary singer Lou Rawls was performing and realized that music was something that he could do. That inspired Withers to buy a guitar at a pawn shop and he began teaching himself to play and write his own songs.
He later added a piano and again with no training, began fiddling on the instrument.
He scraped enough money to record a demo tape and sent it out to major record labels, most of whom turned it down. But black music executive Clarence Avant who had just set up an independent label, Sussex, took notice and set up a recording for Withers with the famous keyboardist Booker T, Jones.
That recording yielded his debut album “Just As I Am” led by “Ain’t No Sunshine” a song of loneliness and heartbreak
“Lean On Me” the lead single from his second album “Still Bill” shot straight to No. 1 and became the song that defined his career.
Withers signed a megadeal with the industry giant, Columbia Records and found that the creative control he had enjoyed at the independent label was gone.
The company executives described him as ‘stubborn’ while he was frustrated that his artistic expression was being curtailed.
The Columbia years were bereft of hits, with the exception of the funky classic “Lovely Day” from 1977. He also recorded the hit duet “Just the Two of Us” with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr though on another label, Elektra Records.
By the time he was recording the 1985 album ‘Watching You Watching Me” Withers had had enough of the music business. He quit and spent the rest of his years, away from the spotlight, living off the proceeds of songs like “Lean On Me” that has been used in many TV shows, movies and commercials. He won three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.