Bill Withers shaped a generation. The soul singer and songwriter was known for writing hits like Lean on Me, Ain’t No Sunshine and Lovely Day. Withers died on Saturday, April 4 due to heart complications.
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Withers was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1938. He had a difficult childhood. Growing up with a stutter, he had a hard time making friends. He also lost his father when he was just 13. His grandmother raised him and he wrote the song Grandma’s Hands for her.
When Withers got older he joined the US Navy and spent 9 years serving his country. He then moved to Los Angeles and got a job making toilet seats but he would work on his music at night.
He eventually got signed to Sussex Records and released an album called Just as I Am which was produced by Booker T. Jones. The album featured one of Withers’ most famous songs Ain’t No Sunshine. The song won him a Grammy for best R&B song.
Withers wrote his hit Lean on Me shortly after that.
After some time, Withers split with Sussex over claims that the label wasn’t paying him. However, he ended up getting signed to Columbia Records in 1976. During his time with Columbia, he released three successful records including one of his most well known, Lovely Day. It was around this time that he met his second wife, Marcia Johnson. Johnson would go on to become Withers’ manager.
Although Withers had some success with Columbia, he eventually split with the label claiming the company’s head of A&R allowed for too much time between his third and fourth releases. He released Watching You Watching Me in 1985 and, after the song failed to chart, Withers went into an early retirement.
Despite unpleasant relations with record companies, by all accounts, Withers retired a happy man. The 2009 documentary Still Bill painted him as a fulfilled musician and a happy man. Film critic Bill Ebert reviewed the movie and reported, “[Withers] still lives and survives as a happy man. Still Bill is about a man who topped the charts, walked away from it all in 1985 and is pleased that he did.”
Withers was fortunate to be able to focus on his family after leaving the music industry. He is survived by his wife Marcia Johnson ad their two children Todd and Kori. To pay tribute to Withers, the family released the following statement.
“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.”
Withers songs are ones that shaped the culture and music of America. He will be remembered.