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  • Withers in 1976

    Withers in 1976 | Photo: Wikipedia

Published 3 April 2020
Opinion

“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” musician and bandleader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Bill Withers is the closest thing Black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

Bill Withers, who wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including "Lean on Me," "Lovely Day" and "Ain't No Sunshine," has died from heart complications, his family said in a statement to The Associated Press. He was 81.

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Withers produced nine albums, most of them written and recorded in the 1970s, starting with "Just As I Am," which included "Ain't No Sunshine," which won him the first of three Grammy Awards, according to his official website.

His musical career ebbed in the 1980s as he left "the hype and the hoopla" of the spotlight for more private life, it said.

"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," Rolling Stone magazine quoted the family as saying a statement. "As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world."

Billy Dee Williams tweeted, "your music cheered my heart and soothed my soul," and Chance the Rapper said Withers' songs are "some of the best songs of all time" and "my heart really hurts for him." Lenny Kravitz said, "My soul always has and always will be full of your music."

"We lost a giant of songwriting today," ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams said in a statement. "Bill Withers' songs are among the most treasured and profound in the American songbook — universal in the way they touch people all over the world, transcending genre and generation. He was a beautiful man with a stunning sense of humor and a gift for truth."

Withers, who overcame a childhood stutter, was born the last of six children in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was 3, Withers was raised by his mother's family in nearby Beckley.

He joined the Navy at 17 and spent nine years in the service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, worked at an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop, and recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract.

In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, he put out his first album, "Just As I Am," with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm. It had the hits "Grandma's Hands" and "Ain't No Sunshine," which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film "Days of Wine and Roses." He was photographed on the cover, smiling and holding his lunch pail.

"Ain't No Sunshine" was initially released as the B-side of his debut single, "Harlem." But radio DJs flipped the disc, and the song climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard charts and spent a total of 16 weeks in the top 40.

Withers went on to generate more hits a year later 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 would come the striking "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 "Live at Carnegie Hall" in 1973 made Rolling Stone's 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.

"The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that," Sting said in "Still Bill," a 2010 documentary of Withers.

But Withers' career stalled when Sussex Records went bankrupt, and he was scooped up by Columbia Records. He no longer had complete control over his music and chafed when it was suggested he do an Elvis cover. His new executives found Withers "difficult."

None of his Columbia albums reached the Top 40 except for 1977's "Menagerie," which produced "Lovely Day." (His hit duet with Grover Washington Jr. "Just the Two of Us" was on Washington's label). Withers' last album was 1985′s "Watching You Watching Me."

Though his songs often 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 was awarded Grammys as a songwriter for "Ain't No Sunshine" in 1971 and for "Just the Two Of Us" in 1981. In 1987, Bill received his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of the 1972 hit "Lean on Me" by Club Nouveau.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder. Withers thanked his wife as well as the R&B pioneers who helped his career like Ray Jackson, Al Bell, and Booker T. Jones. He also got in a few jabs at the record industry, saying A&R stood for "antagonistic and redundant." Withers also was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.

"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," Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015.

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