Bill Withers RIP

Bill Withers died today of complications related to a heart condition.

Just 14 years separated Bill Withers’s 1971 debut studio album, Just As I Am, and his final record, Watching You Watching Me, which has been more or less written out of history (Withers referred to his career as only being seven years long). His life as a professional musician was neither abbreviated by tragedy like Marvin Gaye’s and Donny Hathaway’s, and nor did it comprise dozens of albums over five or six decades like that of a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan. At a certain point, after his relationship with his label Columbia had soured to the point that he didn’t enjoy it anymore, he just walked away.

That makes him essentially singular. Fred Neil, who Withers covered on Just As I Am, pulled a similar move, but Neil was never famous like Bill Withers was. Withers would have known that he’d have been welcomed back any time he chose to make a comeback, and been certain of a recording contract and sell-out theatre tours. He chose to stay home. The documentary Still Bill, released in 2009, showed that he still made music, but he was content to share it just with those closest to him. He professed not to miss performing.

No popular musician, it seems, was as unaffected by his success as Withers. He grew up in a West Virginia mining town, a childhood stutter setting him apart and making it hard for him to make friends. His father died when he was 13, and his grandmother helped raise him, as he explained when introducing Grandma’s Hands on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and in several performances on TV. He spent a spell in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer when Sussex Records released his first album and its deathless single Ain’t No Sunshine broke. He was in his mid-thirties, a fully formed adult, sure of himself and not liable to be taken in by anyone’s bullshit. The cover of that first record shows Withers standing outside the factory with his lunchbox in his hand, like knocking off an album with a couple of instant classics was something he just did over a couple of lunchtimes.

That average-Joe quality is key to Withers’s enduring appeal. As Questlove said in a Rolling Stone profile of Withers, “He’s the last African-American Everyman… Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” His music was, like the man himself, without pretension or fuss. He’s the only major soul figure (at least, the only one I can think of) whose music is based primarily on (and is reducible to) strummed acoustic guitar, and his melodies were seldom ornate or intricately decorated. Anyone can sing Lean on Me or Grandma’s Hands. OK, there was that famed lung capacity that gave us the 18-second held note in Lovely Day and the “I know, I know, I know” bridge in Ain’t No Sunshine, but Withers’s voice was not virtuosic. It was warm, soulful and profoundly relatable. It spoke truth, and made that truth powerful through its restraint and simplicity.

We need that voice right now, more than ever. It will live on.

Here’s a truly wonderful performance of Ain’t No Sunshine from the BBC’s archive. Everything about it is perfect. It is, I should say, my profound and long-held ambition to one day be as cool as the bass player we see 1.15 into the song.

2 thoughts on “Bill Withers RIP

  1. Frank Hudson

    Oh, I’m going to come off as a pendant. Oh well….

    He surely is one of a small handful of singer songwriters who made an impact only to leave the stage so completely largely because they don’t care to deal with the business.I hadn’t thought of Fred Neil till you mentioned him, but that’s a resonate case. Anne Briggs, Bobbie Gentry would be a couple of other cases that come to my mind. Withers’ strange leaving was one of things I thought off too when I heard he’d died.

    Few think of him a soul singer (though I could make a case), but the other noted acoustic-guitar-associated Afro-American artist roughly contemporary to Withers would be Richie Havens, Though a unique artist in many ways (that guitar style!), they aren’t entirely different either. Havens had fewer chart hits, but the cultural impact of his Woodstock movie appearance was significant,

    Don’t take these comments as some kind of stupid one-upmanship on my part (it’s more at a reflex action believe me). I enjoy what you posts here considerably, and your recent one on E. Smith and Figure 8 was particularly excellent I thought.

    Reply
    1. rossjpalmer Post author

      No, not all Frank! You make good points, as always. I hadn’t thought about Richie Havens, but he’s a good point of comparison musically. In terms of leaving the business voluntarily at a time of his own choosing, Fred Neil was the first artist who came to mind (mainly because I love his music), but as you say Briggs and Gentry both did likewise, and there are probably more if we racked our brains. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Hope you’re keeping well in these strange times.

      Reply

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