Smooth soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers achieved many chart hits in the early 1970s, including “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”.
Early life and career
Soul and R&B singer-songwriter William Harrison “Bill” Withers Jr. was born in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia on July 4, 1938. He lost his father when he was thirteen. At eighteen he enlisted in the US Army. After nine years, Withers was finally discharged and he moved to Los Angeles to launch his musical career.
He worked at the Boeing aircraft company as an assembly man during the day, and on the evening he continued to write songs and recorded demos.
One of his demos landed on Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant, who finally signed Withers to his label in early 1970. The label’s resident organist-cum-producer Booker T. Jones produced Withers’ first album Just As I Am in 1971. It peaked at #35 on the Billboard 200 as well as #9 on the R&B album chart, thanks to the now-classic tune “Ain’t No Sunshine”, which reached #3, #2, and #6 on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B singles charts, respectively. It eventually won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song category.
Just As I Am’s follow-up single “Grandma Hands” went to #18 on the R&B singles chart in the fall of 1971. Stephen Stills was featured on the album where he played lead guitar.
The success of Withers’ debut album led to his 1972 sophomore LP Still Bill, which was even more successful. Still Bill reached #4 on the Billboard 200, and topped the R&B album chart that year, eventually going gold.
Still Bill‘s lead-off single “Lean On Me’ was written by Withers about his childhood town in Slab Fork, West Virginia and its strong community spirit, something he missed and didn’t find in Los Angeles. The now-classic single went to #1 on both pop and R&B singles chart. The follow-up, “Use Me”, was almost as successful, going to #2 on both pop and R&B singles chart.
Aside from his own records, Withers also wrote and produced a couple of songs on I Feel A Song, an album by the Gladys Knights & The Pips. Withers also contributed to the soundtrack of the Bill Cosby 1971 Man And Boy with a song titled “Better Days”. He also performed in a concert in Kinshasa, Zaire together with Etta James, James Brown and B. B. King four weeks before the historic Ali-Foreman match there.
Sussex also released Withers’ only live album Live At Carnegie Hall in 1973.
After Sussex went out of business, Withers signed a new contract with Columbia Records label in 1975. Columbia also bought out Withers’ entire masters over at Sussex as the latter folded.
Withers’ first album on Columbia, Making Music, Making Friends was released later that year. It landed on #81 on the Billboard 200 and #7 on the R&B singles chart. The second album on that same label, Naked & Warm, came out in 1976. It was followed by Menagerie in 1977, whose single “Lovely Day” was a Top 40 pop and R&B hit, sending Menagerie into the #39 spot on the Billboard 200 and #16 on the R&B singles chart that year.
He released a couple more albums on Columbia, ‘Bout Love (1979) and Watching You, Watching Me (1985), which was to become his last charting LP.
Withers also collaborated with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. on the latter’s Top 10 hit track “Just The Two Of Us” in 1981. This work won “Just The Two of Us” two Grammy Awards for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year in 1982.
Later life, death, and legacy
“Lean On Me” was covered by the R&B-pop band Club Noveau, who made their version a chart-topper on both pop and dance singles charts in 1987.
In 2005, Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. A documentary motion picture Still Bill (2009) which focused on his life and musical career. In 2015, Stevie Wonders inducted Withers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later that year a concert was held in his honor at Carnegie Hall. One of his last public appearances was on Joy Reid’s show on MSNBC, where he discussed about the refugee crisis, as well the national political climate.
On March 30, 2020, Withers died of heart complications. He was 81 years old. His family announced his death on April 3, saying that they “devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father.”
Despite his passing, his music and his legacy will live on through his fans, friends, and the artists who have covered his music. From Barbra Streisand to Paul McCartney, from Aretha Franklin to Johnny Mathis, from Diana Ross to Michael Jackson, Withers’ music has the power to connect people all over the world.