Bill Withers, the legendary singer who wrote and sang soulful songs in the 1970s like Lean On Me, Lovely Day, and Ain’t No Sunshine has died at the age of 81.
According to reports, the three-time Grammy Award winner, who stopped creating music in the mid-1980s, passed away Monday in Los Angeles.
His death came while the public was drawing inspiration from his songs while battling against the coronavirus pandemic, with healthcare workers, choirs, artists, and netizens posting their own renditions of Lean On Me to help get through these difficult times.
His family’s statement read:
“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,”
“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.”
Withers’ songs during his career became go-to soundtracks of countless engagements, weddings, and backyard parties. They all share the same powerful melodies and perfect grooves melded with a smooth voice that conveys honesty and complex emotions without vocal acrobatics.
Lean On Me, a song of friendship, was performed at the inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Wither’s songs Ain´t No Sunshine and Lean on Me are among Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Questlove, musician, and bandleader told Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview:
“He’s the last African-American Everyman.”
“Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
Withers is one of the few people who overcame his stutter in his early childhood days. He was born the last of six children in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents got separated when he was three, Withers was raised by his mother’s family in nearby Beckley.
At 17 years old, he joined the Navy and spent nine years in service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After he got discharged, he lived in Los Angeles, worked at an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop and recorded demos of his tunes, hoping to land a recording contract.
He signed to Sussex Records in 1971, put out his first album, Just As I Am, with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm. The album has the hits ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Ain´t No Sunshine’, which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film Days Of Wine And Roses.
Ain’t No Sunshine was released originally as the B-side of his debut single, Harlem. But radio DJs flipped the disc accidentally and the song immediately climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard charts, spending a total of 16 weeks in the top 40.
Withers went on to create more hits a year later starting with the inspirational ‘Lean On Me’, the menacing ‘Who Is He (And What Is He to You)’ and the slinky ‘Use Me’ on his second album, Still Bill.
Later in his career, people were struck with ‘Lovely Day’, co-written with Skip Scarborough and featuring Withers holding the word ‘day’ for almost 19 seconds, and Just The Two Of Us, co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter. His album titled ‘Live At Carnegie Hall’ in 1973 made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
In a 2010 documentary, Sting commented about the album Still Bill:
“The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that.”
Though most of Wither’s songs dealt with relationships, Withers also wrote ones with social commentary, including Better Off Dead about an alcoholic’s suicide, and I Can´t Write Left-Handed, about an injured Vietnam War veteran.
He received Grammy awards as a songwriter for Ain´t No Sunshine in 1971 and for Just The Two Of Us in 1981. In 1987, Bill got his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of 1972 hit Lean On Me by Club Nouveau.
In 2015, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. Withers expressed his gratitude for his wife as well as the R&B pioneers who helped his career like Ray Jackson, Al Bell, and Booker T. Jones.
Wither’s songs have been sampled and covered by lots of artists like Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, Will Smith’s version of ‘Just The Two Of Us’, Black Eyed Peas’ Bridging The Gap’ and Twista’s ‘Sunshine’. The song ‘Lean on Me’ was the title theme of a 1989 movie starring Morgan Freeman.
Up until today, most of his songs are often used on the big screen, including The Hangover, 28 Days, American Beauty, Jerry Maguire, Crooklyn, Flight, Beauty Shop, The Secret Life of Pets and Flight.
Wither’s told Rolling Stone in a 2015 interview:
“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
Bill Withers had a happy and peaceful life with his wife, Marcia, and their children, Todd and Kori.