Bill Withers, the sweet-voiced baritone behind such classic songs as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” has died. Withers was 81 years old. According to a family statement given to the Associated Press, he died Monday in Los Angeles due to heart complications. (On Friday morning, Withers’ official Facebook page shared an obituary from Billboard that references the AP’s reporting.)
Withers, who disdained the machinations of the record industry, stopped recording in 1985, just 14 years after he became a star with his debut album, Just As I Am.
He was the first man in his family not to go into the mines, and he couldn’t wait to get away from the place where he grew up, as he told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2015.
Withers’ father died when he was just 13. Soon, another tragedy struck the family. “My social idol was my older brother,” Withers told NPR. “He got hurt in the coal mines — he got crushed by a coal cart — so, he wasn’t able to work in there anymore.” Withers’ brother became a mailman, and he saw a way out of the mines for himself, too.
Withers joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1956. After a nine-year stint, he moved first to San Jose, Calif. and, a couple of years later, to Los Angeles. For a while, he was a milkman, and then worked in a factory making airplane parts. In the evenings, he would sit in as a singer at small clubs around the city. Between shifts, he learned how to play the guitar and began writing his own songs, which he began shopping around to labels.
Withers was first signed by Clarence Avant at Sussex Records; Avant brought in Booker T. Jones to produce 1971’s Just As I Am. (Stephen Stills played lead guitar.)
But, as Withers told NPR, “Ain’t No Sunshine” had started out as a B-side; label reps didn’t see the song’s promise. “The disc jockeys, God bless ’em, turned it over, and that’s how I got started,” he said, adding a zinger: “I call A&R [“artists and repertoire” decision-makers at record labels] ‘antagonistic & redundant,’ and that’s why — because they make those genius decisions like that.”
Just As I Am‘s cover shows Withers standing at the doorway of the factory where he still worked while he recorded the project, carrying his lunch pail. At that point, Withers was already 32 years old.
The following year, Withers released a second album, Still Bill. Its first single, “Lean on Me,” went to No. 1; the album’s second single, “Use Me,” went to No. 2. Withers also became an in-demand songwriter for other artists, composing for such stars as Gladys Knight and José Feliciano. He made two more albums for Sussex — 1973’s Live At Carnegie Hall and 1974’s +‘Justments — before the label folded.
In his brief career, Bill Withers wrote some indelible hits, enough to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. But since quitting the music business in the mid-1980s, Withers has been so low-key, so media-shy, that most people wouldn’t recognize him if he sat down next to them.
Withers signed with the powerhouse label Columbia Records in 1975, but it was not a happy arrangement. Withers wanted to continue writing his own songs but later, he said in interviews that Columbia tried to mold him into someone he wasn’t — urging him to record Elvis Presley covers, for example. Columbia thought he was difficult to work with. Whatever transpired, it was clear that the two sides just didn’t mesh.
Not one of Withers’ five albums for Columbia reached the Top 40. In 1981, he had his last big hit: “Just The Two Of Us,” a duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. Four years later, his recording deal with Columbia ended, and Withers, for all intents and purposes, walked away from the public eye as a performing artist. (He occasionally continued to write songs for others, however: for example, he wrote for Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 album License To Chill, as well as for George Benson’s 2009 project Songs And Stories.)
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. At the time, he told Rolling Stone: “I see it as an award of attrition. What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”