Bill Withers was born in Slab Fork, W. Va., in 1938. A coal miner’s son and the youngest of six children, Withers had no interest in music as a kid. He stuttered and was awkward. His grandfather had been born into slavery, he lived on the border of a segregated town, and threats of racism loomed large.
After getting a hold of his speech impediment and quitting his Navy job as an aircraft mechanic, he re-entered the workforce in 1965 doing $3-an-hour jobs for which he was overqualified. His interest in performing was prompted by a night at an Oakland club, when an exasperated manager remarked that he was paying Lou Rawls too much money — $2,000 a week — for the singer to be late. Withers realized he was in the wrong business. He bought a guitar at a pawn shop, taught himself to play, and fiddled with it between shifts at an aircraft parts factory.
His songwriting impressed industry executive Clarence Avant, founder of the independent label Sussex. Avant brought on Stax keyboardist Booker T. Jones to produce Withers’s debut, and with a band of talented players, they laid down his debut album Just as I Am in only a few days.
Harlem was the first single, but DJs across the U.S. began playing the b-side instead. Ain’t No Sunshine was a smash.
Even after his record deal and the release of his first songs, Withers didn’t quit his day job — an early sign of his practicality. He was laid off at the factory just before the album’s release in 1971. He got two letters shortly thereafter: One was asking him to come back to his job. The other was inviting him to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He chose Johnny Carson.
New words started to enter Withers’s vocabulary that he had never heard to describe him before — words like “handsome.” Bill once remarked, “It’s funny how good-looking you get after you have a hit record.” He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. One of the first things he came up with was a simple chord progression: “It was the first thing I learned to play,” he said. “Even a tiny child can play that.” Tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship. Lean on Me rocketed to No. 1.
Withers became increasingly unhappy on the road. Despite having enormous radio hits, he found himself opening for acts like Jethro Tull and making less money than he felt he deserved. Things got worse when Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. At Sussex, he had complete creative control over his music, but at Columbia he found himself in the middle of a large corporation that was second-guessing his moves.
With the exception of 1977’s Menagerie, none of the Columbia albums reached the Top 40. In 1980, Withers scored a massive hit with Grover Washington on a different label, Elektra. “That was a kiss-my-you-know-what song to Columbia,” said Withers.
In 1985, Bill Withers quit the music business. He turned down more offers for comeback tours than he could count. “What else do I need to buy?” he said. “I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, who treats me like gold. I don’t deserve her. I’m very pleased with my life.”
He didn’t record another note.
In celebration of Bill Withers, who died on March 30, 2020, here are 10 songs that defined the great soul singer.
1. Ain’t No Sunshine
Just as I Am (1971)
This song was my introduction to Bill Withers. I remember when I heard Ain’t No Sunshine, I couldn’t figure the artist out. Was this blues? Soul? Country? It’s all of the above. This is the quintessential Bill Withers song. There is no intro, no bridge, no solos — just raw emotion. Withers dropped any ego or facade and wrote about the pain of losing someone close to him. To this day, people post videos of themselves covering this classic.
2. Grandma’s Hands
Just as I Am (1971)
This one is dedicated to Withers’s dear old grandmother. The simplicity of Just as I Am is what makes the album so wonderful. Think of the music coming out in 1971. It could have been very easy to get a horn section and backup singers to make a big production out of it. In comparison, Grandma’s Hands almost sounds like an unfinished demo. Many thanks to the producer, Booker T. Jones, for having the foresight to keep it simple. In the end, that’s what gives it so much power.
3. I’m Her Daddy
Just as I Am (1971)
Bill Withers had a way of reaching right into your chest, pulling your heart out and saying, “You won’t be needing this anymore.” One example of that is I’m Her Daddy is the story of a man who tracks down an old lover after hearing she had a child of his six years prior. The man has never met the little girl and asks her, “Is she pretty? Has she grown? Does she sleep well in a room of her own?” The desperate man then asks, “Did you give her one of my pictures?” And then Withers delivers the kicker, as only he can: “Does she show it to the babysitter and say, ‘See that man, that’s my daddy’?” Ouf.
4. Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?
Still Bill (1972)
Here is Bill Withers in a suspicious and jealous mood. “A man we passed just tried to stare me down / And when I looked at you, you looked at the ground.” I can’t figure out if the man in this song is an insecure, controlling creep or if the woman he is singing to is indeed a cheat. Regardless, Withers offers up some of the greatest advice ever put on wax: “Before you wreck your old home, be certain of the new.” An angry Bill Withers can be a little scary, yet still full of wisdom.
5. Lean on Me (1972)
Still Bill (1972)
Bill Withers’s best-known song is a simple ode to friendship. It’s possible that the song is about his old buddy C.V. Williams, with whom he grew up in West Virginia. After the success of his first album, Withers saved up a little money, bought himself a piano and taught himself to play. The opening chords to Lean on Me are ridiculously simple; you don’t even have to change hand positions. Withers joked that a small child could play it. Yet the message, as simple as it might be, is a deep one that has been overlooked by songwriters. Withers was sick and tired of love songs, so he wrote about friendship instead. Plain and simple.
6. I Can’t Write Left Handed
Live at Carnegie Hall (1973)
This is a shockingly powerful song about a veteran of the Vietnam War whose right arm was gone. Withers asked him how he was doing, and the vet told him that he was doing OK now, but he thought he was going to die. He said getting shot at didn’t bother him, but it was getting shot that shook him up. Withers tries to put himself in the man’s position, and he cuts right to the heart of the matter with the opening line: “I can’t write left handed / Would you please write a letter to my mother.”
7. Hope She’ll Be Happier
Live at Carnegie Hall (1973)
This is perhaps one of the most powerful performances of Bill Withers’s career. Live at Carnegie Hall is one of my favourite live albums of all time. If you listen closely, you can hear the audience shushing each other as the song starts. Withers’s gorgeous and powerful voice echoes off the walls. The bridge of the song ought to be relatable to anyone who has had someone leave them: “I can’t believe she don’t want to see me / We lived and loved with each other so long / I can’t believe she really would leave me / But she’s gone.” He holds the word “gone” for 16 seconds, and the audience gasps. It is pure Bill Withers gold, and it is absolutely crushing.
8. Hello Like Before
Making Music (1975)
We’ve all been there. Maybe at a party, or at a club, or at the grocery store, we unexpectedly encounter someone we knew intimately, and those old feelings come rushing back. Again, Withers shows his aptitude for being simple yet profound: “Hello like before / I hope we’ve grown cause we were only children then.” This might very well be my favourite Bill Withers song.
9. Let Me Be the One You Need
His voice! Withers is sounding a little more weathered at this point in his career, as he sings a touching story about new love. Once again, he comes up with a lyric that is so unbelievably simple, yet still seems out of reach for most songwriters: “Can’t say I can’t live without you, babe / That’s just some worn out loser’s line.” Withers didn’t have a lot of success with Capitol, but he wrote some of his finest during that stage of his career.
10. Memories Are That Way
‘Bout Love (1978)
For this track, Withers collaborated with jazz pianist Paul Smith, who is best known as an accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald. There is very little that needs to be said about Memories Are That Way. It is both beautiful and painful. In the documentary Still Bill, there’s a clip of a young man up on stage paying tribute to Bill Withers. Withers watches the energetic entertainer perform as images of a young Withers flash on the screen to the sounds of Memories Are That Way. It’s a very moving montage. Have you ever caught a certain smell or heard a sound that took you back in time? It transports you back in time and blows cobwebs off parts of the brain you had forgotten. Bill Withers was blessed with the gift of being able to take you back to times and places in your life, as if he had been right there with you the whole time.