“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” says Questlove of his hero Bill Withers. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” – from an article in Rolling Stone.
Unless you are of a certain age or really got into your dad’s record collection, the name Bill Withers may be unknown to you. In fact, this post came out of nowhere. Wasn’t even on my “to-post” list. Then “Bill Withers” popped into my head and well, here we are.
Withers grew up in a tiny West Virginia town with the charming name of Slab Fork. He served in the Navy for 9 years. In the mid-60’s, having discovered an interest in music and overcome a stutter, he moved to LA to seek fame and fortune. He did manual labor for a while, all the time writing songs, shopping demos around and performing in clubs.
His demo tape was heard by the owner of the now-defunct Sussex Records who, in 1971, released his first album, Greetings From Slab Fork.* Amazingly, his very first album was backed by Booker T. Jones’ band. Filling in for the missing Steve Cropper was some dude named Stephen Stills. (Does that guy get around or what?)
The Withers-written “Ain’t No Sunshine” was released in May 1971. It featured Withers’ smooth baritone and laid-back cool breeze style. It became a smash hit despite, or perhaps because of the fact he sings the phrase “I know” 47,000 times. (He hadn’t yet written lyrics and the other guys in the studio told him to leave it in.)
The song was inspired by the 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses. The doomed relationship of the two alcoholics made him think of the line, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”
Feeling uncertain about a career in music, Withers hung onto his job making toilet seats for 747s. When the song went gold, the record company – doubtless feeling flush with success – presented him with a golden toilet.
Withers started touring and in 1972 win a Grammy for best R&B song for “Sunshine.” A year later, Bill released his second album from which came another massive hit, “Lean On Me.” He said he missed the strong community feeling of old Slab Fork. (It just makes me feel like having a steak.)
For the record, both of those songs are on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 songs of all time.
In 1974 he performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King in Zaire four weeks prior to the historic Rumble in the Jungle fight between Foreman and Ali.
One of my favorite Withers songs is “Use Me,” which has been covered by everyone including a particularly egregious version by Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz. Jagger’s voice is all wrong for the tune and he just sounds shitty.
My friends feel it’s their appointed duty
They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me
But my answer yeah to all that use me stuff
I-I-I is want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used
Oh you just keep on using me until you use me up
Until you use me up
Withers went through the usual corporate label bullshit including watching Columbia execs (he called them “blaxperts”) release an album by Mr. T **(“rap direction” by Ice-T) while he himself couldn’t get songs approved for his own album.
Apart from doing a few guest stints here and there, Withers had, by 1985, pretty much checked out of the music industry. Having not entered music till he was in his early 30’s, he said he always felt like a regular guy so dropping out was no big deal. (Plus, given all the times you’ve heard “Lean on Me” in movies and commercials, one can assume Mr. Withers is not hurting for cash.)
The last songs I remember digging by Withers were a fairly innocuous if pleasant tune called “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us” with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. “Lovely Day” is notable for the fact that at 18 seconds, his sustained note at the end is one of the longest ever recorded.
Withers has won 3 Grammy Awards and been nominated for four more. He was inducted (by the great Stevie Wonder) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. “This is not about me,” Stevie said.” This is about a great man who has written some incredibly great songs, Not only did he write them, but sang them incredibly as well.”
*Heh. It’s actually called Just As I Am. Slab Fork is Asbury Park without Asbury’s glamour.
*Includes the hits “I Pity The Fool,” “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” “Fool in the Rain,” “Fools Rush In,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Fool If You Think It’s Over,” “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone