Bill Withers, famed soul singer, died on March 30th at the age of 81.
His brief career and unusual path to stardom introduced us to songs that, decades later, still resonate.
“The most important thing is to be okay. I know what it feels like not to feel alright. Guilt and regret, aches and pains. I’d really like to learn to accept everything before I die.” — Bill Withers, musician
He grabbed the attention of devoted fans over 40 years ago, with songs that define our feelings of love, melancholy, friendship and happiness — and he did it all in eight years.
“He’s the last African American everyman,” says Questlove of Withers’ passing. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
But Withers himself said he doesn’t hold the same regrets about his short career that his fans might.
“I could have done better, but I did alright,” Withers said. “We are born into the situations we were born into. One day you are, and you try to do something with yourself. So we do the best we can with that.”
Click on the player above to hear WDET’s Ann Delisi’s tribute to Bill Withers, featuring music and commentary from the artist himself.
“Spit It Out, Spit It Out”
“I grew up with, ‘you can’t do nothing.’ Any dreams I had, I kept to myself.”
Withers was born on July 4th, 1938, in Slab Fork, West Virginia.
“We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhoods,” Withers is quoted as saying. “I heard guys playing country music, and in church I heard gospel. Music was everywhere.”
His mother was a maid and his father worked the coal mines, where he died when Withers’ was 13-years-old.
For many years, he struggled with a stutter that profoundly affected his sense of self, saying others would slap him with towels or yell at him to “spit it out” when he struggled.
“I grew up with, ‘you can’t do nothing,” said Withers. ”Any dreams that I had, I kept them to myself.”
He recalled one teacher who called him handicapped, which offended him.
“Once you’re labeled a less than person, it gave me this crisis of confidence,” Withers said. ”I just wanted to leave and then go and start over with some new people.”
Withers found help in a local newsstand owner who connected him to a speech therapist. The family couldn’t afford more than one session, but it made him realize his stutter was something he could work on.
He would later say that the stutter was rooted in fear of being judged and laughed at by others.
“If I was to going to write anything longer than a song, I would write about fear,” Withers said. “People get stuck in situations and they want to do something else but they’re afraid. Courage is not being afraid. It’s what you do in spite of being afraid.”
Discovering the Music Industry
Withers graduated from high school, joined the Navy and became an aircraft mechanic. It wasn’t until he left the service after nine years that he ended up in Los Angeles to pursue a music career.
He would say later that he was confident in himself when he arrived in the city.
“I had never written any songs, I didn’t know how to play anything, and I had never sung before. But I decided it would be awfully nice to get into the music business.”
“Certain things you don’t try if you don’t think you can do it,” Withers said. “I don’t think you can get into sports or music by accident. You have to put yourself on the line.”
He got a job for Weber Aircraft Corporation installing toilets in 747 aircraft, saving up to record demos.
“I had never written any songs, I didn’t really know how to play anything, and I had never sung before,” Withers said. “But I decided it would be awfully nice to get into the music business.”
The 32-year-old Withers faced resistance for being ‘too old’ for a music career. But his demo tape landed in the hands of Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records — “some guy I never heard of from a record company I never heard of,” Withers would later say — who signed his first album, “Just As I Am” (1971).
During the recording process, he would meet and work with famed musicians like Booker T. Jones, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, the latter two of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“I was in my thirties, so I was beyond being star-struck,” Withers said. “I was just trying to get something done.”
In a testament to his skepticism about this nascent music career, the cover of the album features Withers on his lunch break from his other job, holding a lunch box against a brick wall.
“Ain’t No Sunshine”
After his record debuted, Withers was laid-off from his job as a mechanic.
But it didn’t matter, as the album, and it’s hit song “Ain’t No Sunshine,” had taken off, and Withers was fielding invites to perform on the likes of the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
“Once in my life I wanted to forgo my own male ego and admit to losing something.”
Withers later said he considered “Ain’t No Sunshine” the best song on the album, despite it originally being the B-Side to the first single, “Harlem.” The songs unique beginning skipped an introduction and jumped straight into the chorus, a choice that reflected Withers’ willingness to break traditions of modern songwriting.
In one telling, he chalks up the origins of the song to the 1962 film “Days Of Wine and Roses,” which traces the dissolution of a couple’s relationship due to alcoholism.
“Men have problems admitting to losing things,” Withers said of writing the song. “Every woman that I’ve had to do with in my life before then thinks that song is about them — and they’re probably all right. Once in my life I wanted to forgo my own male ego and admit to losing something.”
He ended up winning a Grammy award for best Rhythm and Blues song, beating our Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls and Ike and Tina Turner.
Major Label Success — And Headaches
“You’re already loaded up enough with the burden of trying to find those feelings. Then here comes a bunch of guys trying to tell you what to do.”
From there, Withers would release his second album, “Still Bill” (1972), leading to a string of hits: “Lean On Me,” the famous song about friendship, “Use Me,” which was sampled by the likes of Mick Jagger, Ike and Tina Turner and Fiona Apple, and more.
The lyrics of his songs were truly unforgettable with the most soulful voice to deliver them. But the success wasn’t enough to quell his frustration with the music business.
His deal with Sussex Records fell apart when the company went bankrupt. That was followed by a deal with Columbia Records for his fourth album, featuring the talents of funk brother James Jamerson and Motown music arranger Paul Riser.
But Withers found the major label to be creatively suffocating.
“You’re already loaded up enough with the burden of trying to find those feelings,” Withers said. “Then here comes a bunch of guys trying to tell you what to do.”
He recalled ‘blaxperts,’ or white industry insiders, who would tell him how to appeal African American listeners. One told him to cover Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” — “I was livid,” Withers said.
“How Can You Just Stop?”
“I like music, but I’m not going to place my whole worth on it.”
Then, after eight years of making music, Withers walked away.
He wanted to be there for his children, but he was also ready to go. Fans and fellow artists held out hopes for decades he would return.
“I’ve had people ask me that question a lot, how can you just stop?” Wither said. “To me, it wasn’t stopping anything. It was doing something else.”
“I like music, but I’m not going to place my whole worth on it. You know how unhappy you would be if you thought the way you are is not okay? I started out my life like that, I don’t want to end up like that.”