Bill Withers - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


          Bill Withers was a late bloomer, issuing his debut album, Just As I Am, when he was 33, in 1971. The was also an early quitter, cutting his final album, the little-noticed Watching You Watching Me, 14 years later, after which he retired from recording and performing.  Yet during that time, particularly in the first two years, he created a body of original songs -- most notably "Ain't No Sunshine," "Grandma's Hands," "Lean on Me," and "Use Me" -- that have since been performed by countless other artists and generated royalties that have sustained the inactive singer-songwriter and his family over the years.


            Born on July 4, 1938, In Slab Fork, West Virginia, and raised in nearby Beckley, Withers hadn't given much thought to music while growing up, the youngest of six children, in coal-mining country, nor during his nine years in the U.S. Navy. His coalminer father died when he was 13, and he dropped out of school after the ninth grade. He has always been shy, both on and off stage, something he has attributed to a stuttering problem that he never completely overcame. He enlisted in the navy at 17.


            He moved to San Jose, California, after his discharge and got a job as a mechanic at Lockheed Aircaft, when he specialized in installing toilet seats in airplanes. He spent his weekends attending Bay Area nightclubs. At one in San Francisco, he met up-and-coming vocalist Al Jarreau. In Oakland, where he went to see Lou Rawls, he overheard a bartender saying that the singer was earning $2,000 per week. A light bulb went off in Withers' head, causing him to pursue singing himself.  He purchased a cheap guitar, taught himself some chords, and began writing songs. He moved to Los Angeles, continued installing commodes (for Hughes), and saved his money to cut demos. Apparently not wholly satisfied with his own singing abilities, he got Jarreau to record a demo of his songs. In 1983, after Jarreau had become popular, material from the demo session was issued on an unauthorized album that subsequently surfaced on CD as This One's for You: Al Jarreau Sings Bill Withers (2001-Pickwick). 


            Withers, who was making $3.50 an hour on his day job, spent some $2,500 making more demos on which he did the singing himself. Numerous record companies and publishing firms rejected his songs until Clarence Avant of the fledgling Sussex label showed interest in 1970s. Avant hired Memphis keyboardist Booker T. Jones , who had recently relocated to Southern California following the breakup of Booker T. and The M.G's, to produce Withers' debut LP. For the sessions, Jones used two of his old partners in the M.G.'s, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr., in addition to guitarist Stephen Stills, bassist Chris Etheridge, drummer Jim Keltner, and percussionist Bobbie Hall Porter. Both  Jones and Withers also played guitars on the album, released as Just As I Am (1971-Sussex).


            Pictured on the LP cover in blue jeans and T-Shirt and holding a lunch box while leaning against a brick wall,  the singer didn't quit his day job upon the album's release because he was unsure about the security offered by a new career in the music business. Then the first single, "Ain't No Sunshine," took off, placing at No. 3 on Billboard's pop chart and at No. 6 on the trade publication's R&B list.  It also received a Grammy as the Best Rhythm & Blues Song of 1971.


            Even if Withers had taken up music as a means of making money, his warm, scratchy low-tenor voice and sensitive, highly literate songs betrayed an artist with much more on his mind that commercial success. Indeed, the singer-songwriter's intimate creations, dubbed "folk-soul" by some, cut against the grain of African American pop music of the period. "Ain't No Sunshine" and such other songs from the album as the No. 18 R&B, No. 42 pop "Grandma's Hands" and "Harlem" came from a deeply personal place.


            Finally quitting his day gig, Withers put together a band comprising keyboardist Ray Jackson, guitarist Bernoce Blackman, bassist Melvin Dunlap, and drummer James Gadson, all formerly of Charles Wright's Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. The rhythm section gave a distinctively syncopated new underpinning to the vocalist's sophomore album, Still Bill (1973-Sussex), which reached No. 4 on the pop chart and included the No. 1 pop and R&B single "Lean on Me, the No. 2 pop and R&B "Use Me," and the No. 12 R&B, No. 31 pop "Kissing My Love."


            "Lean on Me," the lyrics of which Withers has said were inspired by the way poor folks helped each other through hard times back in rural West Virginia, as well as by the camaraderie he'd witness between fellow aircraft workers, is widely considered to be among the greatest pop songs of the 20th Century. The rock band Mud had a No. 7 hit with it in the UK in 1976, and Club Nouveau took it to No. 1 pop, No 2 R&B in the U.S. in 1987, earning Withers a writer's Grammy that year for Best Rhythm & Blues song.  It also inspired the hit 1989 motion picture of the same title, starring Morgan Freeman, the soundtrack of which featured one version by Sandra Reaves-Phillips and another by Thelma Houston and The Winans. And in 1999, gospel artist Kirk Franklin scored at No. 26 R&B with a rendition that featured guests Mary J. Bligwe, Bono, and R. Kelly. 


            Two more Withers albums followed on Sussex:  Live at Carnegie Hall (1973) and +'Judgements (1974). +'Judgements included the No. 10 R&B, No. 50 pop hit "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh," which Withers had penned in 1968. Writer's block had set in during 1973. Withers had great difficulty focusing his mind on composing new songs, in part due to a disastrous one-year marriage to actress Denise Nicholas and, more significantly, to a bitter legal battle with Avant over more than $500,000 in unpaid recording and publishing royalties.  Avant was also in arrears to the Internal Revenue Service, the California Franchise Tax Board, and the American Federation of Musicians, and in 1975 the IRS seized his record company's assets, including Withers' masters.  The assets were put up for auction and purchased by Columbia Records for $50,500.


            Because of the dispute with Avant, Withers made no new recordings of his own during 1974.  He did, however, write and produce two songs on the Gladys Knight & The Pips album I Feel a Song (1974-Buddah) and sang a duet with Bobby Womack on a No. 68 R&B rendition of "It's All Over Now," a tune Womack had first cut with his brothers in the Valentinos in 1964. Also in 1974, Withers took part in a concert with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King at the "Rumble in the Jungle" George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire, musical footage from which was used in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings.



            Withers himself signed with Columbia in 1975, but his ten-year tenure at the label was at times acrimonious and yielded only two Top 10 R&B hits -- the No. 10 "Make Love to Your Mind" in 1975 and the No. 6 "Lovely Day" in 1977 -- neither making significant pop showings. The singer made five albums for Columbia, serving as the primary producer of each: Making Music (1975), Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1978), Bout Love (1979) and Watching You, Watching Me (1985). He made no recordings for the company between 1978 and '85, other than a sadly overlooked  patriotic single titled "U.S.A." in 1981. He did however, turn up on other labels singing as a guest with other artists: with The Crusaders on "Soul Shadows" (1980-MCA), with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. on "Just the Two of Us" (1981-Elektra), and with percussionist Ralph McDonald on "In the Name of Love" (1984-Polydor). "Just the Two of Us," a No. 3 R&B, No. 2 pop hit, was written by Withers, McDonald, and William Slater and earned all three men a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song.


            Withers' final chart entry came in 1985 with the No. 46 R&B "Something That Turns You On" from Watching You, Watching Me. The album contained a Latin-tinged funk track titled "Steppin' Right Along" on which the final line from the singer's lyric, "Something hot will make you give up everything you got," was followed by an intensely sung rendition of "The Lord's Prayer." It was as if Withers was offering his fans a farewell prayer.


            Silence followed from Withers, broken musically only by "Playin' the Loser Again," a duet with Jimmy Buffett on the Buffett CD License to Chill (2004-RCA).  There are no plans for any future Withers recordings or performances.


            "It's too late to learn to play show business now," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. "I never did it before. I don't know how."


            Withers has not, however, retired from the music business. With help from Marcia Johnson, his wife since 1976, and their two adult children, he manages a lucrative catalog of songs that have been used in numerous commercial jingles and motion pictures, covered by such artists as Michael Jackson, Esther Phillips, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Sting, Paul McCartney, Hootie and The Blowfish, Better Than Ezra, and Widespread Panic, and sampled by the likes of Tupac Shakur, Akon, Will Smith, Eminem, Swizz Beatz, LL Cool J, and Kanye West.


            Eighteen of Withers' hits and album tracks are collected on The Best of Bill Withers: Lean on Me (2000-Columbia/Legacy).

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