RIP: Bill Withers

Posted April 4, 2020 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

“Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” singer-songwriter legend dies at the age 81

billwithers-02Bill Withers, beloved singer-songwriter with a string of golden hits released in the ’70’s and ’80’s, passed away on Monday. He was 81.

According to a statement sent to the Associated Press by family, Withers passed away from heart complications at his home in Los Angeles. “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father…a solitary man with a heart-driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the statement read. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a poverty-stricken coalmine town, Withers joined the Navy, worked as an aircraft assembler and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. A demo tape featuring Withers’ earliest songs,”Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands,” impressed the ears of Sussex Records’ founder Clarence Avant, leading up to his signing with the young label in 1970. His style was packaged with a soul-folk seasoning, anchored in a calming singer-songwriter tradition but no stranger to the traditions of the blues, where which his assuring voice gave credence to. Stax Records alum Booker T Jones was commissioned by Avant to produce his debut album. By this point, Withers was already in his 30s, an anomaly in the records biz.

1971: Sussex Records releases Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" as the B-side of "Harlem."The label later flipped it, giving Withers his first ever Top Ten hit.

1971: Sussex Records releases Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” as the B-side of “Harlem.”The label later flipped it, giving Withers his first ever Top Ten hit.

The finished product, Just As I Am, included reinterpretations of both songs from Withers’s demo and were released as the album’s singles. Of the mightiest was the bluesy ballad of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” packaged with a wealth of strings (very unlike the product Jones was used to making with Booker T & the MGs at Stax). It included a very popular section where Withers engaged in an almost prayerlike subtle chant of “I know-I know-I know.” What was originally planned to be a third verse ended up being Withers delivering “I know” over and over again for twenty-six times. That moment of musical magic worked. By August, “Ain’t No Sunshine – originally a B-side to “Harlem” until disc jockeys flipped it over – rocketed to number three pop and remained in that spot for two weeks, selling over a million copies.

The song would be used covered by a score of other artists, most infamously by Michael Jackson, Black Label Society and Isaac Hayes, but Withers’ version remains a musical milestone. It even registered at number 285 on the Greatest Songs of All Time compiled by Rolling Stone magazine.

Withers’ follow-up LP, Still Bill, proved to be just as rewarding. Considered his magnum opus, “Lean on Me” was released in 1972 and bolted to number one pop and R&B. The infectious inspirational gem, cast against the unpopular backdrop of the Vietnam War, became a healing salve for the nation while playing alongside timely protest hits by Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On?,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”), the Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself”) and Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman”). The song, bearing a hymnlike glow, would also be covered heavily by multiple artists, but the most popular cover came in 1987 when R&B/hip-hop group Club Nouveau updated the song using synths, drum programming and other ’80’s elements. Their take, used as the title track for the motion picture soundtrack of the Morgan Freeman-starring Lean on Me, became one of the biggest hits of 1987, shooting to number one and holding to that sport for two weeks straight. It also grabbed the number one spot on the dance charts, plus number two R&B. The following year, Withers walked away with a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song, being the composer of the Club Nouveau cover. “Lean on Me” is ranked 208 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Also featured on Still Bill was “Use Me,” a sinewy funky jam blessed with all the groovy curves of Stevie Wonder and Memphis soul. It also was Withers’ most forward proclamation of sex. At the tail end of each verse, he motions to “just keep on using me until you use me up.” It was a fancier way of broadcasting the ooze of sex without verbalizing it in an explicit fashion. Released in September 1972, it climbed to number two pop and number two R&B, holding on to both spots for two weeks and was certified gold by year’s end.

Withers continued to record music for Sussex, even recording a live album in 1973 at Carnegie Hall (in what some consider Withers at his apex) until the label eventually folded, forcing him to move on to Columbia/CBS in 1975. During those years, Withers had relatively modest success, with much of the albums being uneven and not as sharp with his earlier output. Still, he was surrounded by the next generation of mighty musicians – names including Ray Parker, Jr., Ralph MacDonald, Wah Wah Watson, Louis Johnson (Brothers Johnson) and members of Parker’s band Raydio. The CBS sessions brought about some of Withers’ most beloved singles. “Lovely Day,” a gorgeously light uptempo gem co-written with Skip Scarborough, broke out from 1977’s Menagerie and peaked at number 30 pop, number 6 R&B and number 7 UK. Dozens have covered the track, including the short-lived S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. (featuring Michelle Visage), a C+C Music Factory-produced number-one dance version found on Whitney Houston’s best-selling The Bodyguard soundtrack. Others who have taken refuge in”Lovely Day” include Diana Ross, Kirk Franklin, Luther Vandross, Maroon 5, Jill Scott and Take 6.

In 1978, Withers played around with disco, resulting in the seven-minute jam “You Got the Stuff.” A collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr. resulted in “Just the Two of Us” in 1980, which was nominated for four Grammys (including Song and Record of the Year). They both manage to walk away with a Grammy for Best R&B Song. Another hit collaboration followed in 1983 with the Grammy-nominated “In the Name of Love” featuring longtime session partner Ralph MacDonald.


By the mid-’80’s, Withers, a three-time Grammy winner, had become disappointed with the music industry, particularly with how execs attempted to force musical styles on him. He then decided at the age of 47 to cease recording music professionally. Touring was next. But Withers did break from his retirement to record with Jimmy Buffett on 2004’s License to Chill, a disc loaded with special guests. He showed up as a guest vocalist and co-writer on “Playin’ the Loser Again” and also co-wrote “Simply Complicated” alongside Buffett. Though some considered that Withers had become a total recluse, he wasn’t. He appeared in a 2009 documentary on his life aptly titled Still Bill, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and appeared frequently in the Netflix documentary, The Black Godfather, a film chronicling the unsung hero of Clarence Avant.

Withers is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and Kori.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Response


Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better