Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. soul legend Bill Withers

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. soul legend Bill Withers
Photo: Michael Buckner (Getty Images)

Bill Withers, the incomparable, Grammy-winning soul singer and writer who gifted the world timeless hits such as “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and many others, has died of heart complications. Withers’ family confirmed his death in a statement to The Associated Press: “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. 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. 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.” He was 81 years old.


Bill Withers was born on July 4, 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia. The youngest of six children, Withers understood the value of hard work: He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served for nine years. There, he developed an interest in performing and songwriting while overcoming a stutter. After he discharged in 1965, he sold his furniture and used the profits—a total of $250—to move to Los Angeles and pursue a singing career. While recording demo tapes, he juggled his day job as a factory assembler and his nighttime gig as a club performer. Even after developing his debut album Just As I Am—the collection that included his first major hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine”—he held on to his day work until he was laid off months before its release, unsure that music would provide a steady enough living. The album’s cover art was actually a photo taken during Withers’ lunch break.

When Just As I Am was released in 1971 under Sussex Records, singles “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” propelled the album’s success. In 1972, the gold-certified “Ain’t No Sunshine” won a Grammy for Best R&B Song. That year he recorded his second album, Still Bill, with the leading single, “Lean On Me.” His follow-up smash, “Use Me,” would be his third million seller. Though legal disputes with Sussex prevented him from recording for years thereafter, he still managed to write and produce songs for fellow soul mainstays Gladys Knight & The Pips. He also used the downtime to perform with the likes of James Brown, B.B. King, and Etta James.

In 1975, Withers moved on to Columbia Records, where he released four albums: Making Music (1975), Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977), and ‘Bout Love (1978). Menagerie featured the easy-listening soul track “Lovely Day,” which made the top ten in both the Billboard R&B and British single charts. From 1977 to 1985 he participated in a number of joint projects, including the Grammy-winning collaboration “Just The Two Of Us” with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and “In The Name Of Love” with Ralph MacDonald. Due to mounting frustrations with his label and industry politics in general, 1985's Watching You Watching Me became his final studio album.

Withers’ work has endured long after he stopped recording, from samples like that of “Grandma’s Hands” in Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and contributions to Jimmy Buffet’s 2004 release License To Chill. In 2015, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by Stevie Wonder. In 2011, Withers spoke to The A.V. Club about his career and being the subject of the 2009 documentary, Still Bill.