Bill Withers, 1938 – 2020: the reluctant star whose songs were as understated as his genius

The great American songwriter has died at the age of 81 due to heart complications. RIP

In the 2009 documentary Still Bill, American songwriter Bill Withers, then aged 70 and long retired from the music industry, reflected: “I’m kind of like pennies. You have ’em in your pocket but you don’t remember they’re there.”

Like the film itself, this was a melancholy musing, yet one that hinted at Withers’ enormous contribution to popular music: ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lovely Day, ‘Lean On Me’ – these are songs woven deep into the fabric of popular culture, so familiar that they feel like they’ve always existed. And, like Withers himself, they are low-key; immaculate, understated compositions that don’t draw attention to their own genius.

Advertisement

Bill Withers, who has died from heart complications at the age of 81, was born in Slab Fork, a coal mining town in West Virginia, in 1938. One of six children, he suffered a bad stutter that made him an object of ridicule. “People laughed right in my face when I was trying to say something,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “It was something you just wish you’d never had to deal with.”

A speech therapy course, arranged by a commanding officer during Withers’ time in the Navy – he served for nine years from the age of 18 – helped to iron this out. There is a sense, though, that the impact upon his confidence lasted long into adulthood: despite his possessing a rich, soulful singing voice, he initially saw himself as a songwriter who would pen hits for others to perform.

This idea struck him during a stint in Hollywood in the 1960s, when he took a job installing toilets in nightclubs and saw other singers working the circuit. Instead Withers found confidence within, realising he had stories to tell and, crucially, that he was the one to tell them.

His debut album, the 1971 soul masterwork ‘Just As I Am’, bore all the hallmarks that would turn Withers into a star: it was down-to-earth (on the freewheeling ‘Harlem’ he laments “the mean ol’ landlord” who “don’t care if I freeze to death or not”) and intimate (‘Grandma’s Hands’ is a close family portrait that eulogises a beloved relative). 

Withers paid to record ‘Just As I Am’ with his own money. Its cover photo was taken when he was on his lunchbreak from another job at a factory that made aircraft parts; look closely and you can see that he’s holding his lunchbox. Released through the small, short-lived label Sussex Records, it bore the enduring hit ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, a perfectly formed ballad whose success outsized its humble, two-minute run-time. The song rocketed to Number Three on the Billboard 100, establishing its author as a serious talent.

He still lacked the confidence to quit his job, but was made redundant two days before the album’s release. No matter: he was soon performing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ on The Johnny Carson Show, an appearance that introduced him to middle America.

Advertisement

By now Withers was 32, an age at which many pop stars’ careers are starting to slow down. But Bill Withers was no ordinary pop star, and seemed to lack the combination of ego and insecurity that powers so many larger-than-life personas. He shrugged off ‘Lean On Me’, his heartfelt ode to friendship, but explained to Rolling Stone that “the guys at the record company thought it was a single.” The song went straight to Number One and became one of the defining hits of 1972.

What followed was a tumultuous period for the musician: an unhappy marriage to the actor Denise Nicholas, which lasted just over a year, and a rocky time at Columbia Records, with whom he signed a five-record deal when Sussex went bust in 1975. Used to having his own creative control – early in his career he refused to hire a manager – Withers found it difficult to work within the machination of a large corporation. Although his Columbia albums were less well-received that his first two, independent records, 1977’s ‘Menagerie’ opens with the jubilant ‘Lovely Day’, which became one of his most timeless tunes (and has been sampled by artists as diverse as Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff and Maroon 5).

Aside from a cover of Little Jimmy Dickens’ ‘(You’ve Been Quite A Doll) Raggedy Ann’, released as a tribute to the late country singer, Withers produced no recorded material after the 1985 album ‘Watching You Watching Me’. He last performed publicly in 2004 at a 40th birthday party with an audience of just 150.

He disliked touring, never feeling it was worth the money, and had no respect for record label executives who interfered with his music. Instead he spent the last three decades living off his royalties, running a real estate company with his second wife, Marcia, and turning down comeback tour offers. “What else do I need to buy?” he once asked. “I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, man, who treats me like gold… This business came to me in my thirties. I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”

Indeed, Still Bill followed him pottering around his home in LA, hanging out with his two kids and singing for fun – but never commerce. Bill Withers’ life was a lesson in being able to take or leave other people’s assessments of your success, and he was all the stronger for it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement