Bill Withers, one of the most influential soul singer-songwriters in history, died on Monday, March 30th, at the age of 81 in Los Angeles. According to his family’s statement, released in Associated Press on Friday, he died of heart complications.
A “solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world”, “he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the family statement says. Bill Withers was a classic embodiment of a true, unadulterated musical genius, not just because of timeless hits like “Lovely Day”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, and of course, “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t no Sunshine”, but also because they came from a man with a stutter and no musical education whatsoever, who openly scoffed at the music industry and its business aspect.
Bill Withers was born on July 4, 1938, in a family of 13 children, only six of which made it past infancy. His father was a coal miner in West Virginia, and that seemed to be the predetermined future for him, too. However, he became the first man to take a different path.
First, Withers joined the Navy in 1956, fresh out of high school. This chapter continued for 9 years. The next one had him work odd jobs in California, like being a milkman and working in a airplane parts factory. It was in this factory that he made the first, probably unconscious steps toward musical immortality, teaching himself to play guitar between shifts. He was 29 at the time.
“I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he famously said in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine. “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.”
To make his aura of authenticity all-the-more real, he manages to set aside enough money from his wages to pay for studio sessions in L.A. His dedication paid off, with Clarence Avant from Sussex Records signing him and bringing Booker T. Jones to produce his first album, Just as I Am, in 1970. In the spirit of the album’s name, it shows Withers standing at the airplane parts factory’s doorway with his lunch box in hand – he was still working there while recording the album, at the age of 32. It was this album that introduced “Ain’t No Sunshine” to the world and earned him a Grammy in 1971 for Best R&B song, despite label reps overlooking its potential.
The next year proved Withers wasn’t a one-hit wonder – his next album not only continued the title storyline with Still Bill, but also featured “Lean on Me” and “Use Me”, which climbed to number 1 and 2, respectively – career commercial hits.
But signing with Columbia Records in 1975 was the beginning of the end of Withers’ relatively short, but saturated career. The two parties never really managed to find common creative ground, and it was this relationship that likely embittered Withers the most toward the music industry, with “Just the Two of Us” being the only fruit that became a major hit.
Withers retired in 1985 from music as a performance art, content with writing the occasional song for other artists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
“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,” his family statement goes.