According to Variety.com via Associated Press, Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Bill Withers, whose career in music blossomed in the early ‘70s via a string of highly-personalized hits such as “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Use Me,” died from heart complications on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81. Withers is survived by his wife and two children.
To quote the article:
“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,” the family said in a statement to AP. “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.”
Withers was 33 years old and working on an aircraft assembly line in 1971 when his first hit, the self-penned, Grammy-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine,” soared up the charts. He quickly followed up that success with a run of hit singles that included “Use Me” and the gospel-soul smash “Lean On Me,” which won a belated Grammy Award as best R&B song in 1987.
While those songs are recognized today as classics, Withers was not able to top the surprise commercial success of his early career. His subdued, introspective, often acoustic-based style grew increasingly at odds with the hard funk and disco of the ‘70s, and disputes with his record labels slowed his production at the height of his popularity. He essentially retired from performing and recording in the mid-‘80s. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Withers was born July 4, 1938, in the mining town of Slab Fork, VA. He was afflicted with a stutter from an early age. He enlisted in the Navy at 18, and, as his speech disability receded, he began singing and songwriting. After nine years of service, he was discharged in 1965.
Relocating to Los Angeles, he began performing in local clubs at night while working assembly line jobs in the aviation industry. In 1970, a demo tape he had recorded caught the interest of the well-traveled black record exec Clarence Avant, who signed Withers to his label, Sussex Records.
Withers debut album “Just As I Am” was released in May 1971; Withers is pictured on the cover holding a lunchbox in his hand, for the shot was taken during his lunch break at Burbank’s Weber Aircraft, where he continued to install toilet seats in commercial airplanes.
The collection was the first major hit produced by Booker T. Jones, the former keyboardist for the Memphis instrumental soul act Booker T. & the MG’s, who appeared on the set with former band mates Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson. Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and studio ace Jim Keltner also contributed to the record’s eclectic sound.
The LP contained “Ain’t No Sunshine,” an incantatory two-minute cry of pain that its author said was inspired by a viewing of Blake Edwards’ drama about alcoholism “The Days of Wine and Roses.” The song — released as the B-side of the “Harlem” 45, which was flipped by DJs — soared to No. 3 on the pop chart and No. 6 on the R&B rolls, garnered a Grammy as best R&B song, and pushed “Just As I Am” into the national pop top 40. The album’s moving “Grandma’s Hands” also reached No. 18 on the R&B side.
For his follow-up, Withers recruited four members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, a popular L.A. act fronted by singer Charles Wright, to back him and co-produce his sophomore album. “Still Bill” (1972) topped its predecessor, shooting to No. 4 on the pop list and No. 1 on the R&B album chart; the LP was pushed by the massive hit singles “Lean On Me” (No. 1 pop and R&B) and “Use Me” (No. 2 pop, No. 1 R&B). In 1973, Withers wed “Room 222” sitcom star Denise Nicholas, but the marriage lasted only a year.
He made his last appearance in the national top 10 in 1981 with a guest vocal on “Just the Two of Us” (No. 2 pop, No. 3 R&B), a romantic ballad issued on hitmaking saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr.’s album “Winelight.”
After Columbia’s release of “Watching You Watching Me” (No. 143, 1985), Withers stepped away from performing. In later years, he explained his retreat from the stage and the studio, and ultimately from writing, to Alix Sharkey of England’s Telegraph: “That kind of stuff, to me, was a lot more interesting at 35…. I’m not motivated to wanna draw attention to myself or travel all over the place. There was a time for that. When it was done, it was done.”
To hear some of his best music, listen to the Spotify playlist below: