There are precious few artists whose work, even just in the remembrance of that work, has the ability to evoke a mood and visceral feelings of well being, comfort, nostalgia, melancholy and grace. Or maybe there was just one, and now he is gone. Bill Withers has died. Who’s voice, other than Bill’s, comes wafting into our minds at the first scent of a charcoal grill being lit on a perfect summer’s day (Lovely Day), or after an soul fortifying conversation with your favorite person (Lean on Me), or as you’re wallowing after a difficult break up (Ain’t No Sunshine) or flying high on the exhilaration of new love (Just the Two of Us)? It’s hard to imagine a world in which Bill’s music wasn’t providing the soundtrack for our lives. According to the AP, Bill died in Los Angeles from heart complications on Monday at the age of 81.
The AP reports:
The three-time Grammy Award winner, who withdrew from making music in the mid-1980s, died on Monday in Los Angeles, the statement said. His death comes as the public has drawn inspiration from his music during the coronavirus pandemic, with health care workers, choirs, artists and more posting their own renditions on “Lean on Me” to help get through the difficult times.
“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 family 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.”
Bill’s career as a singer and songwriter was short lived, yet the music he produced between the years 1971, when he released his first album ( Just as I Am, which featured Ain’t no Sunshine and the song I dare anybody to listen to without shedding a tear, Grandma’s Hands), and 1985 when he quit the record industry for good, has more than endured. It’s become an indelible part of our nation’s soul. Not bad for a kid with a stutter from a coal mining town in West Virginia.
Withers, who overcame a childhood stutter, was born the last of six children in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was 3, Withers was raised by his mother’s family in nearby Beckley.
He joined the Navy at 17 and spent nine years in the service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, worked at an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop and recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract.
In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, he put out his first album, “Just As I Am,” with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm. It had the hits “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film “Days of Wine and Roses.” He was photographed on the cover, smiling and holding his lunch pail.
Bill was, wisely, mistrustful of the recording industry, and according to Rolling Stone, wasn’t too enamored with fame either.
But fame didn’t agree with him. He hated life on the road, his marriage to TV star Denise Nicholas became fodder for the tabloids, and his distrust of businessmen made him unwilling to work with a manager. “Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema,” he said. “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”
Totally real side note: “Gasoline Enema” was scheduled to play Coachella this year.
Bill eventually signed on with Columbia Records where he recorded the hits Just The Two Of Us and Lovely Day. But Bill still wasn’t trying to have these executives tell him what to do. After refusing to record a cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto, things between him and Columbia soured.
“I was not allowed in the studio,” he said. “People say my career was 15 years, but it was eight years. I was not allowed in the studio from 1978 through 1985.”
His final album was 1985’s Watching You Watching Me. “They made me record that album at some guy’s home studio,” he said. “This stark-naked five-year-old girl was running around the house, and they said to her, ‘We’re busy. Go play with Bill.’ Now, I’m this big black guy and they’re sending a little naked white girl over to play with me! I said, ‘I gotta get out of here. I can’t take this shit!’”
Yes, we lost a real one. But because of his extraordinary talent, integrity and frank ability to strike at the heart of the human experience, he will never be forgotten.