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.