“The closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen, the last African-American Everyman,” is how The Roots’ frontman Questlove described Bill Withers after the soul singer’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. His classic 1970s hits – “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean on Me”, “Lovely Day” and “Use Me” – have an unfiltered sucker-punch simplicity that has given them rare and equal placing on drive-time radio and music snobs’ playlists.
The youngest of six children raised in the improbably named rural town of Slab Fork, West Virginia (where, according to recent surveys, the median income was at least 20 per cent below the national average and, as of the 2000 Census, none of the residents had received a college degree), Withers was the son of a coal miner (who died when he was just 13 years old) and largely brought up by his maternal Grandma Galloway: the inspiration for the song he was most proud of: “Grandma’s Hands”.
The mature lyrics in praise of a woman who cared for the local “unwed mothers” were direct testimony. In the 2009 documentary Still Bill, Withers remembered stuttering as a child and said: “Grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid. I wonder what it would have been like if my grandmothers had been on crack. You can tell how much difference it makes in people’s lives when they get good ones.”
In Slab Fork, he was inspired by the heartfelt narratives of country and gospel music, but distressed by the racism: “One of the first things I learned,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015, “when I was around four, was that if you make a mistake and go into a white women’s bathroom, they’re going to kill your father.”
On the flip side, he also credits his small hometown as “a place where people were more attentive to each other” than in the big cities.
Withers enlisted in the US Navy aged 17 and began singing and writing songs during his service. As with so many stutterers, he found a new vocal confidence while singing. He emerged in 1965, and used the $250 he made from selling his furniture to finance a move to Los Angeles and attempted to break into the music industry. In 1970, he was signed to Sussex Records (and assigned Booker T Jones as a producer), although he refused to quit his day job making aviation parts for Weber Aircraft. His 1971 debut album – Just as I Am – features a photograph of him at work, holding his lunchbox on the cover.
The ridiculously tight record – which featured CSN&Y’s Stephen Stills on lead guitar – included the songs “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (the latter released as a B side to a song called “Harlem”). Withers was apparently inspired to write “Ain’t No Sunshine”, considered by many as the perfect break-up song, after watching the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, starring Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon.
“They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong,” he said. “It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you. It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.”
The famous part where Withers repeats “I know, I know, I know…” was originally just a demo fill – like Otis Redding’s whistling on “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” (also recorded with the MGs as backing band). But Withers recalled Jones saying: “No, leave it like that.”
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“It was an interesting thing because I’ve got all these guys that were already established, and I was working in the factory at the time,” Withers said. “Graham Nash was sitting right in front of me, just offering his support. Stephen Stills was playing and there was Booker T and Al Jackson and Donald Dunn – all of the MGs except Steve Cropper. They were all these people with all this experience and all these reputations, and I was this factory worker just sort of puttering around. So when their general feeling was, ‘Leave it like that,’ I left it like that.” His co-workers made fun of him, but two weeks after the album was released, he was invited to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Weirdly, the Grammy-winning song did not chart in the UK on its original release, but a 1972 cover by Michael Jackson hit the No 8 spot and Withers’s final version finally made its first entry into the UK singles chart following Shaun Smith’s 2009 cover on Britain’s Got Talent.
Despite the success of his debut, Withers’s second album, Still Bill, was also made on a shoestring of just $7,500. He bought an electric Wurlitzer piano and wrote “Lean on Me” on it.
“I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano,” he recalled of the song played at the inaugurations of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind,” he said. “Because its melody is a precise fit for the fingers, it’s often one of the first songs children now learn on the piano. My own son came home and played it for me after his first piano lesson, aged nine. “This is a good thing, listen!” he told me. Then sang: “Sometimes in our lives we all have pain/ We all have sorrow/ But if we are wise/ We know that there’s always tomorrow.” I might have cried a bit.
Withers confessional third album, 1974’s +’Justments (pronounced “adjustments”), pulled listeners directly into the pain he felt over the break-up of his brief and tumultuous first marriage.
“It was like a diary,” Questlove said. “That album was a pre-reality-show look at his life. Keep in mind this was years before Marvin Gaye did it with Here, My Dear.”
But when Sussex Records went bankrupt in 1975, Withers moved to Columbia where everything went wrong for him. “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period’,” Withers told Rolling Stone. “I am proud of myself because I did not hit him. I met another executive who was looking at a photo of the Four Tops in a magazine. He actually said to me, ‘Look at these ugly n*****s’.”
Withers only had two more hits after that: 1977’s spaciously funky “Lovely Day” and a 1980 duet with Grover Washington Jr, “Just the Two of Us” (on Elektra), which he quite understandably celebrated as his “kiss off song to Columbia”. He never recorded again, despite Questlove’s repeated efforts to haul the legend back into the studio. But Withers liked to say: “I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.”
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