One of my favourite artistes, soul singer and the powerful, emotional voice behind such songs as Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me and Use Me, Bill Withers died last week following heart complications. His deep lyrics and easy sing-along style made you feel as if he was singing in your sitting room.
Born William Harrison Withers Jr on July 4, 1938, the son of a coal miner in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill was one of a family of 13 children, of whom only six survived infancy, in a poor black neighbourhood. His parents divorced when he was three and his father died when Bill was 13.
He grew up with a severe stutter. “People laughed right in my face when I was trying to say something,” he said, but he was determined not to let his handicap hold him back. Withers listened to whatever music happened to catch his attention, “Mostly country music,” he recalled and, the music in church and what was taught in school.
Withers joined the Navy in 1956 after graduating from high school, becoming the first man in his family for generations, not to go into the mines. He could not wait to get away from the place where he grew up in squalor and poverty. While in the Navy, one of his commanding officers organised a speech therapy course, helping Bill to overcome his impediment which perhaps gave his voice the strength and emotional authority that was to be the hallmark of his singing career later in life.
After a nine-year stint with the Navy, he left in 1965 and first went to San Hose, California, and then after a couple of years, to Los Angeles. At first, he worked as a milkman before securing a job assembling aircraft parts. In the evenings he would sit in as a singer in small clubs around the city. Between shifts, he learned to play the guitar and began writing his own songs, which he started selling around to labels. He thought that music was something he could do alongside his regular job.
By the time Withers signed with Clarence Avant's Sussex Records in 1970, he was 32 and had already travelled the world, known grown women, done backbreaking work and was familiar with the bouquet of poverty. Failure held no fear for him because hard work was a known quantity, enabling him to live as he pleased.
When Withers was signed to Sussex Records, he appeared with just a guitar and his voice. Clarence liked what he heard and commented that “Bill Withers is a genius storyteller”. He recruited Booker T Jones to produce an album and “Just As I am” was recorded in 1971 resulting in the hit single, Ain’t No Sunshine, which went to No.3 on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for best R&B song the following year.
In 1972, Withers released his second album “Still Bill”. It’s first single, Lean On Me, went to No.1 and the album’s second single, Use Me, went to No.2. Withers also became an in-demand songwriter for other artistes, composing for such stars as Gladys Knight and José Feliciano. He made two more albums for Sussex; 1973's “Live At Carnegie Hall” and 1974’s “+ 'Justments”, before the label went into bankruptcy.
Despite the huge attention brought by his first two albums, Withers was not happy. He did not enjoy all the glamour and touring, and his marriage to the TV star Denise Nicholas brought mostly conflict, ending in divorce in 1974.
Withers signed with the powerhouse Columbia in 1975, but it was not a happy arrangement. Withers wanted to be his own man writing his own songs in his own style but, Columbia wanted to mold him into something he wasn't; urging him to record covers of Elvis Pressley, for example in order to appeal to a white audience. Withers was never comfortable and felt nothing but contempt for what he considered to be the company's narrow-minded executives. His work somehow survived "blaxploitation" by "blaxperts", his tunes serving as a tonic against the toxic masculinity to come in both Black film, and eventually Black music.
None of his five albums with Columbia reached the Top 40. In 1981, Withers had his last big hit; Just The Two Of Us, a duet with Grover Washington Jr.
Four years later, his recording contract with Columbia ended rather acrimoniously, and Withers, for all intents and purposes, walked away from the public eye as a recording artiste.
Emerging from the other end of his music career, Withers never looked back. Living off his royalties, licensing and endorsements, he focused on building a property portfolio in partnership with his second wife, Marcia, whom he married in 1976, while raising their children, Todd and Kori. Marcia also supervised the running of his music publishing company.
“I’m lucky I married a woman with an MBA,” he said at one point. Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bill Withers music was simple yet profound. In a BBC documentary, Still Bill, filmed in 2009, Withers comes across as a man who harbours no regrets about walking away from the music industry and by so doing almost certainly escaping the spiral downfall of many others who could not withstand the pressures and demands of that industry. He eschewed the hit machine for emotional truth.
Withers made music not to be famous, but to live a fuller life. His music, as great and timeless as it is, is a doorway to those deeper human lessons.