Listening to Bill Withers’ first album, 1971’s Just As I Am, it’s hard to believe it was recorded while he was still working days installing toilets in aircraft. Rarely has a talent sprung forth so fully formed, especially from a man who was so conscientiously hedging his bets. Withers’ songs, whether heartsick or accusatory, sneak up and insinuate themselves into listeners’ heads. Although “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” and “Use Me” were part of a string of hits in the ’70s, Withers was a reluctant star. He retired, apparently for good, in 1985, citing a pervasive distaste for the music industry. Retired he remains, but the documentary Still Bill shows him happily living a sustainable middle-class existence and occasionally emerging for the odd tribute concert. He also addresses a class of young stutterers, a difficulty Withers struggled with at a young age, although barely a trace of it remains. Although Withers remains committed to staying in the audience, Still Bill puts him back onstage where he belongs.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up being the subject of Still Bill?
Bill Withers: It’s just something these two guys came up with the idea to do. So I’ve been basically trying to accommodate them as much as my nerves can take it, you know? It wasn’t like I was sitting around going, “Yeah, I need somebody to make a movie on me.”
AVC: You haven’t performed in years, and you don’t seem to need the public validation that many people go into the entertainment industry to get. But you have done Q&As after screenings. What’s it been like to be back onstage?
BW: Different times in your life, you get excited over different stuff. I mean, I’m sure at that time I was like everybody else. It was like, “Hey, look at me,” you know? They called it show business, but it’s really showing-off business. Some people maintain that their whole lives, and I guess there was a time for that. I mean, I’m sure there was a time when company came over and I wanted to do somersaults in front of them, when I was 3 years old. But you know, you evolve. Your priorities change. For that time, that was great. Now, I’ve never wanted to be the old guy on the stage.
AVC: Some people stay onstage long after they’ve lost the desire, and that’s no good for anyone.
BW: Well, you know, I would love to see Muhammad Ali box now. You know what I mean? It depends. I love seeing people like Tony Bennett and B.B. King still doing that as seniors. It’s just not in my DNA, I guess.
AVC: The film covers a number of tribute concerts to your music, featuring songs you no longer perform. What’s it like for you to be in the audience? Does it allow you to just sit back and appreciate the songs you wrote?
BW: Well, over the years I kind of got used to people doing my songs. Some of my favorites are little girls on YouTube—you know, arguing over who’s going to get to lean on each other. High-school choirs and stuff. That’s the fun stuff. One of my favorite things was, I was going through some prison. You know how you go in to visit prisons and stuff? Back in the day. And they didn’t know I was there, and the prison church choir was rehearsing “Lean On Me.” That’s fun stuff. So you get used to it after a while. Some kids in Canada got themselves in the Guinness Book Of Records by being the most people to sing one of my songs in a radio station at once. I’m getting a certificate. The kids took care of me. They dragged me into the Guinness Book Of Records while I was probably sleeping or something. After so many years, you get used to that. I think the first time I heard somebody cover one of my songs was a saxophone version. Grover Washington did a recording of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” So that’s kind of fun. But it’s been a long time. It’s kind of hard to get worked up over the same thing for 50 years.
AVC: You talk a lot in the film about your childhood struggle with stuttering, although it rarely affects you now. Even profound stutterers, though, can often sing without a hitch. Did singing serve that function for you as a child?
BW: I don’t think singing and stuttering had anything to do with each other for me. When you’re growing up, kids are always finding out what they can do. They try sports, they race each other to see who can run fast, and they even look at each other to find out, “Okay, who among us is good-looking?” Who’s tall, who’s whatever, you know. You’re just finding yourself. Somewhere along the way, it occurs to them they might be able to sing. If you start singing when you’re a kid, and nobody tells you to shut up, you go, “Oh, okay,” you know what I mean? Because kids are very honest. When somebody tries to sing who can’t sing, you know, kids will go, “Oh no, man, no.” [Laughs.] And kids who stutter are very quickly made aware of that by the other kids, because they almost want to hear you do it, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]
It’s that whole process of finding out what you are. We’re all accidents at birth. One day we find out who we are—somebody goes, “Okay, this is your name, you know, this is your elbow.” They take you over to a mirror and say, “That’s what you look like, and this is your Aunt Susie. Don’t go to the bathroom in the living room,” or something like that. All those discovery things. Then, once you become aware of what you are and who you are and who you belong to, then there’s that process of trying to figure out how to be you. What should I practice?
What’s always interesting to me is people who are blind. I found out that some people actually start stuttering as late as 12 years old. I don’t remember not doing it. I don’t remember the start of something like that. Some people are born blind; some people become blind at various ages. But whatever you are, you got to find out how to live like that. One of my favorite times was with [musician] Raul Midón. Raul is this amazing guy, man. He has this thing, it’s called a “Type And Speak” or something like that. And when he wants to remember something, rather than write down notes, he types into this thing. He can play it [back] at that Donald Duck speed, you know what I mean? For the life of me I don’t know how he can understand something talking that fast. Because he plays it back at this faster speed. All I can hear is [Imitates high-speed speech]. But he’s trained himself to listen back that fast. People who have issues to deal with, or people who are not like everybody else, then they have to find a way to exist as that—fascinating people like Stephen Hawking. I think how we all exist is, how good are we at finding out what to do with ourselves as we exist. You know? Did you ever meet guys who are not particularly good-looking, but women just love them?
AVC: All the time.
BW: And you figure, like, “I don’t understand that, man. How did this guy get to be a ladies’ man?” Or people who are able to get by with their personality. That’s what makes life interesting, is everybody’s trying to find a way to be them.
AVC: When you started making music, did you have that feeling? That was who you were supposed to be?
BW: I started doing it seriously kind of late. It was something that was always in the back of my mind. I remember being almost 30, and my mother saying, “You know, you should try to do something with music.” It’s like getting into some really hot or really cold water. You kind of stick your toe in. There’s an interesting thing about life. Most things, like music and sports, and even things like beauty contests, a lot of people think they can do it. I mean, just a huge amount of people, which is why there’s something like American Idol and talent contests, beauty contests, all these contests, all these shows. A huge amount of people think they can do it. And some of them are right. So I was one of those late-bloomer kind of guys. It’s like, every Sunday, football is on, right? Well, you got maybe 40 million people watching this game. Twenty thousand guys sitting in their living room think, “If I got the chance, I think I could play quarterback.” Probably three of them could. So it’s throwing yourself into this arena, where you are one of many, many people who think you might be able to have a shot at this, and finding out whether you’re right. Then you get all these mixed reactions, you know. Some people say, “Yeah, man, that’s cool, you should keep doing that. Something could happen for you.” And then it’s trying to get a record deal. In my experience, a lot of people go, “Nah, you know, we’re going to pass, nothing’s happening.” So there’s that whole sorting-out process that we all do with ourselves, you know? I was glad, or I am glad, that I got to validate myself first as a person by just having a job—being in the Navy, stuff that regular people do. Because I can’t imagine what it would be like if you put your whole being into “I got to be this thing,” and it doesn’t work out.
AVC: The fact that you don’t have to be onstage 200 nights a year to feel like you’re a whole person may have come from the fact that you had a life before you got into music.
BW: Well, the other thing is, I don’t know if I have that kind of energy now. Or that kind of drive. I get a lot of stuff. People call up, “Hey, I got this great idea. We can go on tour,” and all like that. The answer is, “That’s occurred to me,” you know what I mean? They’re not telling me anything I haven’t thought about. There’s a certain risk. I remember being around boxers and stuff, just watching them get up there in their shorts and walk up in front of all these women, all of these people, and take the risk of getting knocked out. You think, “Man, you talk about risk.” That’s some serious risk. Any kind of personal-services thing like that, I think you should do it as long as you have the metabolism to take that risk. So maybe I’m scared, I don’t know. I don’t have a problem with that.
AVC: You essentially came out of nowhere to record your first album, Just As I Am, which was produced by Booker T. Jones. It must have been a shot in the arm to know he was one of the people who believed in your talent.
BW: That was cool, because he basically brought the other guys from the MG’s, except for Steve Cropper, and Stephen Stills filled in for that. So that was a very comfortable entry for me. I also had Graham Nash sit down in front of me while I was recording and say, “You can do it, don’t worry,” in that nice English accent. So, yeah, that was a very encouraging situation for me.
AVC: You’ve talked about how the songs you were writing then were free of outside interference. No one told you that “Grandma’s Hands” is only two minutes long and doesn’t have a chorus. It’s not a song a “professional” would write.
BW: I don’t know if anyone can teach you how to write. I think that’s a gift. Trust me, there’s always somebody that’s trying to tell you how to do whatever it is you’re doing. I mean, I have a name for A&R. I call it “antagonistic and redundant.” Some phrases that haunt me to this day are, “Are you going to put any horns on it?” and “Where are the chicks?” It’s kind of funny. If you don’t have any individualism about yourself, then you’ll be all over the place, because there’s always somebody that thinks they need to tell you how to do what you’re doing. That’s just life. If you’re outside working on your car, your neighbor will come over and look over your shoulder and say, “Did you check that wire over there? Look over there.” You have to have some kind of sense of yourself in order to not do what everybody else does.
AVC: You’ve said you didn’t write songs where it was just someone saying, “I love you,” that you wanted to make something simple and real. Did that come out of listening to the radio and thinking, “That’s not how it is”?
BW: Well, we all have built-in defense mechanisms to justify what we can’t do. Probably I didn’t want to do that because I couldn’t do it. I would have been the worst Temptation in the world. You know, doing those dance steps and stuff. … I knew I wouldn’t have been any good at that, so I found a way. Stuttering is a result of a certain shyness. I can’t really play the guitar, but it was a wonderful way to have something to do with my hands, and where I didn’t have to get up and dance. We all qualify what we can’t do by saying we don’t want to do it. That’s just a defense mechanism when you’re young and you’re trying to validate yourself. If somebody goes back over everything you’ve ever said in your life, it would be embarrassing to tell the absolute truth about why you said those things. So that stuff was probably just a way of being defensive about things that I knew I couldn’t do.
AVC: On the most basic lyrical level, you put phrases in songs no one else does, like “appointed duty” in “Use Me.” That isn’t moon/June/spoon.
BW: You’re probably more analytical about that than I am. I think that what people write is just a function of their personality. I’ve said stuff like “Hello like before.” But when I was a kid, if I was an English class, and we had to write out a little composition, a lot of times mine would get read aloud, because maybe I had a different way of saying things. I think that’s a function of personality. There are a lot of things I wish I had said that I’ve heard people write. Like, “The first time ever I saw your face.” That’s a wonderful sentiment. Or “Superstition,” I mean, how clever is that? I was thinking, “Stevie [Wonder], where did you come from with this?” because it’s so clever. Who would’ve thought of that? I like things that are outside the typical “Hold my hand, I’m your man,” and stuff like that, cliché stuff, because that’s where you really hit something, you know what I mean? Remember “Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”?
AVC: Those are songs that stick around because there’s nothing like them.
BW: Yeah, oh yeah, man. Even when I was a kid, there was a group called the Korn Kobblers, and they would sing songs like, “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” I got one in my head that I’ll never do anything with, but it’s my personal song. It’s “Have you ever seen a kangaroo and when they roo, what do they do? And right there in front of us, we saw a hippo go pottamus.” That’s just my song in my head. So I think people say things as a function of their personality. A lot of times, people are asking, “Well, when you wrote this, what were you thinking?” Sometimes, when I tell the absolute truth, I’ll say, “I was thinking that.”
AVC: Elvis Costello once said, “If I could have said it another way, I would have written a different song.”
BW: It’s probably, if you talk to 10 different people, there’ll be 10 different processes that people arrive at what they do. I really don’t want to know, because then it’s not magic anymore. I don’t want to know how come something crossed my mind. Wouldn’t that be something, if you could break it down and make it like working on a transmission or something? You take this part and that part and the other part and you plug it up and make sure it doesn’t leak. For me, the whole fun of this thing is that there’s a certain mysteriousness of it. Like, why did this cross my mind rather than somebody else’s mind? You do all this living, like, today I got a cold so I’m kind of pampering myself. My wife is being nice to me. I drink a lot of water. Everybody’s trying to give me some soup, or mix up something, or put something in the blender, “Drink this, whatever that.” Some guy’s out somewhere trying to hit a golf ball. Somebody else is trying not to step in something that smells. Somebody’s over here looking for a house. He can’t find the address because the numbers aren’t written. There’s all these things going on in the world. And once in a while, one of those processes affects you enough to where it sticks in your head, and you want to say something about it. There’s some crazy guy off somewhere writing a manifesto. The world has all these things going on in it, and sometimes people narrow it down and they say it for us in a way that makes us remember it. Sometimes it’s put to music.
I keep remembering watching the football game last week, and this guy starts running, and everybody’s tackling him, and he doesn’t go down. And he goes 65 yards or something like that. Now, he can only do that once, because normally, they done knocked his butt down on the 20-yard line or something. But that one time, whatever was working, the energy or his metabolism. Or at the end of some basketball game, when some guy throws a ball from 75 feet away, and it goes in. Well, that’s not going to happen all the time. So you got all these people sitting around over thousands of years, can you imagine how many songs have been written? So there’s stuff that for some reason or another, makes us remember it. It’s a song like “Amazing Grace.” People have been singing that song from a bazillion years ago. And then you learn the history of that song, and you think, like, “Wow, man, this is deep. There’s some humility in here, and this is an epiphany,” you know what I mean? So I don’t know what I said, but I’m sitting here talking to you, so.