William Harrison (Bill) Withers Jr. (July 4, 1938 – March 30, 2020) was an American former singer-songwriter and musician who performed and recorded from 1970 until 1985.
He recorded several major hits, including “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, “Lovely Day”, and “Grandma’s Hands”. He won three Grammy Awards and was nominated for four more. His life was the subject of the 2009 documentary film Still Bill. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bill Withers was the youngest of six children and born in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. He was born with a stutter and has said he had a hard time fitting in. Raised in nearby Beckley, he was 13 years old when his father died. At the age of 18 he enlisted with the United States Navy and served for nine years, during which time he overcame his stutter and became interested in singing and writing songs. He left the Navy in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 to start a musical career.
Bill Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night. When he finally debuted with the song “Ain’t No Sunshine”, he refused to resign from his job because he believed the music business was a fickle industry.
During early 1970, Withers’s demo tape was played by Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records, who signed Bill Withers to a record deal and assigned former Stax Records stalwart Booker T. Jones to produce his first album. Four three-hour recording sessions were planned for the album, but funding caused the album to be recorded in three sessions with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” as singles. The album features Stephen Stills (from Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) playing lead guitar, and the album cover of the album picture Withers at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California, holding his lunch box.
The album was a success, and Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap.
At the 14th annual Grammy Awards, on Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Bill Withers won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The track had already sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America in September 1971.
During a break from touring, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill. The single, “Lean on Me” went to number one the week of July 8, 1972, and was his second gold single with confirmed sales in excess of three million. His follow-up, “Use Me” released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place on October 12, 1972.
His performance at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, was recorded, and released as the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall on November 30, 1972. In 1974, Withers recorded the album +’Justments. Due to a legal dispute with the Sussex company, Withers was unable to record for some time after that.
During this time, he wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record I Feel a Song, and in October 1974 performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King in Zaire four weeks before the historic Rumble in the Jungle fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack. Other footage of his performance is included in the 2008 documentary film Soul Power, which is based on archival footage of the 1974 Zaire concert.
After Sussex Records folded, Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975, and first album release with them was “Making Music” which included the single “She’s Lonely”, which was featured in the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar along with “She Wants to (Get on Down)”. During the next three years he released an album each year with Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977; containing the classic “Lovely Day”), and ‘Bout Love (1978).
Due to problems with Columbia and being unable to get songs approved for his album, he concentrated on joint projects from 1977 to 1985, including “Just the Two of Us”, with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., which was released during June 1980, and won a Grammy on February 24, 1982.
In 1982, Bill Withers was a featured vocalist on the album, “Dreams in Stone” by French singer Michel Berger. This record included one composition co-written and sung by Withers, an upbeat disco song about New York City entitled “Apple Pie.” The album was not released in North America, although it contains several songs about America.
In 1985 came “Watching You Watching Me”, which featured the Top 40-rated R&B single “Oh Yeah”, and ended Withers’s business association with Columbia Records. Bill Withers stated in interviews that a lot of the songs approved for the album, in particular, two of the first three singles released, were frustratingly the same songs which were rejected in 1982. He toured with Jennifer Holliday in 1985 to promote what would be his final studio album.
His disdain for Columbia’s A&R executives or “blaxperts”, as he termed them, trying to exert control over how he should sound if he wanted to sell more albums, played a part in his decision to not record or re-sign to a record label after 1985, effectively ending his performing career, even though remixes of his previously recorded music were released well after his ‘retirement’.
Finding success later in life than a lot of musicians, at 32, he said he was socialized as a ‘regular guy’ who had a life before the music, so he did not feel a need to keep recording once he fell out of love with the industry. He has also stated that he did not miss touring and performing live or regret leaving music behind.
In 1988, a new version of “Lovely Day” from the 1977 Menagerie album, entitled “Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)” and remixed by Ben Liebrand, reached the Top 10 in the United Kingdom, leading to Bill Withers’ performance on the long-running UK show Top of the Pops that year. The original release had reached number 7 in the UK in early 1978, and the re-release climbed higher to number 4.
In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for the re-recording of “Lean on Me” by Club Nouveau on their debut album “Life, Love and Pain”, released in 1986 on Warner Bros. Records.
In 1996, a portion of his song “Grandma’s Hands” was sampled in the song “No Diggity” by BLACKstreet, featuring Dr. Dre. The single went to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold 1.6 million copies and won a Grammy in 1998 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Bill Withers contributed two songs to Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 release “License to Chill”.
“Lean on Me” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.
On January 26, 2014, at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, “Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection”, a nine-disc set featuring Bill Withers’s eight studio albums, as well as his live album Live at Carnegie Hall, received the “Best Historical” Grammy Award (in a tie with The Rolling Stones’ “Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland 1965.”)
On April 18, 2015, Bill Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder.
On October 1, 2015, there was a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in his honor, featuring Aloe Blacc, Ed Sheeran, Dr. John, Michael McDonald and Anthony Hamilton recreating his 1973 concert album, “Live at Carnegie Hall”, along with other Bill Withers material.
Bill Withers, died on March 30, 2020 aged 81 of heart complications.
If you click through the links on this post and make a purchase, we may receive a commission (at no extra cost to you). Thanks you supporting us in this way!
Click here to see our full Affiliate Disclosure