Life & Arts

Vale Bill Withers: A giant of soul music

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Bill Withers and John Legend in 2015 (image via YouTube).

The sun has sadly set on the career of influential soul artist Bill Withers, who has died of heart complications at the age of 81.

The youngest of six children, he was born William Harrison Withers Jr on July 4, 1938, in the small West Virginian coal mining town of Slab Fork, in the last days of the Great Depression.

A childhood stutter made Withers painfully shy and he had great difficulty making friends. At 13, Withers lost his father and this added further to his despair.

Throughout his relatively short-lived but highly successful soul career, which spanned from 1970 to 1985, Withers was known as a quietly spoken and humble man who appeared to be full of self-doubt about his considerable singing and songwriting abilities.

A case in point happened between 1967 and 1972. After Withers left the Navy, which he joined at 17 and served for nine years, he moved to Los Angeles and worked as an aircraft mechanic for several different companies.

During his time as an aircraft mechanic, Withers recorded demo tapes with his own money and performed at clubs at night. Even when his debut single, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, proved to be enormously successful, Withers refused to resign from his job because he considered music to be a fickle industry. On the cover of his first album, “Just As I Am”, Withers was photographed at his day job at an aircraft factory, holding his lunch box.

Withers arguably sold himself short because “Ain’t No Sunshine” was phenomenal, selling more than a million copies and receiving a Grammy Award for the best R&B Song in 1972.  This song was later covered, with similar success, by another band in the early 1990s.

By mid-1972, Withers was gaining confidence and released a second album with the arguably humble title “Still Bill.” A single from the album "Lean on Me" topped the charts in July that same year and sold more than three million copies.

This was Withers’ most successful song and an ode to the supportive power of friendship. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama played the gospel-influenced song at their inaugurations and, in more recent times, “Lean on Me” has become an unofficial coronavirus anthem, sung by schoolchildren on balconies at impromptu concerts.

Withers scored a hat trick in October 1972 with a follow-up single from the Still Bill album called “Use Me”. It also achieved gold record status. In addition, Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, released the same month, is considered one of the greatest live albums ever made.

The “Use Me” period coincided with a legal dispute Withers was having with his then-record company, Sussex, which he accused of “blaxploitation” (trading on Withers’ African-American heritage to its own advantage) and not paying him properly.

Rock journalist Robert Christgau commented on the saga:

“Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn’t yet understand how precarious its status was,” Christgau said.

Further, he meditated:

Warm, raunchy, secular, common, he never strove for Ashford & Simpson-style sophistication, which hardly rendered him immune to the temptations of sudden wealth – cross-class attraction is what gives “Use Me” its kick. He didn’t accept that there had to be winners and losers, that fellowship was a luxury the newly successful couldn’t afford. Soon, sudden wealth took its toll on him while the economic clampdown took its toll on his social context.

Withers wasn’t able to record for a while because of the ongoing record company dispute. However, when Sussex eventually folded and Withers signed with Colombia Records, he launched a comeback with beautiful songs like “Lovely Day”, launched in 1977.

In June 1980, Withers collaborated with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr and released “Just the Two of Us”, which won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.

Despite his ongoing success, Withers had very similar problems with Colombia Records executives, who he witheringly called “blaxperts” and accused of trying to exert control over his sound so they could sell more records. In 1985, a Withers quit the music industry and said he wanted to lead his life as a “regular guy”.

In 2015, Stevie Wonder inducted Withers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Withers said:

What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre I didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done too bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.

Withers’ death prompted a flood of tributes.

Nile Rogers of Chic described Withers as “class, class and more class”. Questlove, drummer for the Roots, wrote, “he was our Springsteen…our Everyman”. Beach Boys’ songwriter Brian Wilson called him a “song writer’s songwriter”.

In a family statement, Withers’ surviving wife, Marcia Johnson, and their children, Todd and Kori, wrote:

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. 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.

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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