I got introduced to the music of Bill Withers as a teen and quite by happy accident, as all discovery of new music is. As with all memories from that time, my actual recollection of how I came upon this gem of an artist is hazy, to say the least.
It might have been an audio cassette that I five-finger-discounted from a ‘foreign-return’ uncle’s place, could have been a TV show, I mean ‘The Wonder Years’ did introduce a lot of us to lesser-known Motown classics, or it could have been playing on the radio somewhere.
I did not follow Mr. Withers’ career and life, but his music was always a slow burn in the OST of my life. From innumerable replays of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ to my myriad covers of fan-favourites like ‘Lovely Day’ at club gigs, his music was always a languid resonance in the ether of my life as a musician.
So when he passed away recently aged 81, of heart complications, it was a bitter-sweet fondness with which I, as I am sure all of us, remembered his music. It was also one of the rare times that I didn’t obsessively pore over all the fawning obituaries, the hyperbolic artist bios, the album reviews and even the hagiographies, to find new things and reinforce old things about the artist. In that sense, in death as in his life, Bill Withers, much like the man himself, has been a quiet, steady presence, through his music in my mind.
Until now, when I decided to do the same as I had done for all of the personal idols who passed recently. It is always great to learn about the person behind the artist, as we are always prone to forgetting the humanity behind the art, that informs it.
Bill Withers’ career was not the cookie-cutter route, he entered the world of music pretty late, having spent close to a decade in the US Navy. ‘Just As I Am’ was his debut released in 1971, when he was a grand, old man at the age of 33, by pop music standards anyway.
Soul-stirring classics like ‘Harlem’ and ‘Grandma’s Hands’ peppered the album and made the charts. It was, however, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ a slow ode to loneliness and heartbreak, that rocketed up the rankings and became his signature tune. The 1962 film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, by Blake Edwards, is said to have inspired it, and it has since been used in a lot of movies to signify that singular melancholy, Hugh Grant did the loner walk to it in 90s rom-com staple ‘Notting Hill,’ even.
For me though, movie soundtracks meant little, as I had access to my high-school music teacher’s vinyl collection, that had among its ranks, old Pete Seeger bootlegs, the usual Dylan, Guthrie, Willie Nelson presses, dog-eared to within an inch of their shelf-lives, and in the corner lay ‘Still Bill.’ I, however, was already nourishing an old soul inside an adolescent body, to really get swayed by any one particular song.
Swayed, though I did get. ‘Still Bill’ came out in 1972 and still holds up as a defining record of stone-cold-soul. It gave Withers his only chart-topping single, ‘Lean On Me’. The song spoke of a simple theme of friendship and was a gospel-like rendering by Withers. Replete with rumbling, solemn piano chords and shimmering strings in all their glory, this classic was Withers in total artistic command of what he could do as a singer and musician.
It also did the small courtesy of changing one kid’s life and built on his attitude to music, as a soundtrack to living.
Bill Withers was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, the youngest of six children. Withers grew up poor, but with a constant influence of music in his life, from country to pop standards, such as Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He was drawn to singing gospel a capella, as it did not require him to buy any instruments.
In what has become quite the cliche in many a recording artist’s life story, he was cast aside for being different in many social situations, growing up. Having been afflicted with a severe stutter did not help, as he was at the receiving end of a lot of abuse.
His time in the Navy helped him overcome the speech impediment and boosted his confidence in his abilities. It occurred to Withers that music might be some kind of a calling, after watching artists such as Lou Rawls perform in nightclubs. Soon, he was able to channel his inner songwriter and turned his passion into a career pursuit. He worked in aircraft factories as a mechanic and made demos at night, before landing a record deal. He never looked back, releasing new music until 1985.
Withers did not quite become a superstar, even when he was signed to a major record label. The age-old artist-executive tussle saw him get disillusioned with the business side of things. By the time ‘Just The Two Of Us’ came about in ’81, sales of his records had all but died.
He had never considered music his sole purpose in life. As he had got into it in his 30s, when he was a fully-formed person with wide-ranging interests, he never felt particularly indebted, nor ingratiated himself to it.
Even in his later years, he gave the air of a satisfied man, experiencing no regrets about walking away from it all. He always played down his classics saying that covering ‘Lean On Me’ was the simplest thing to do for any amateur, as it was not a complicated song.
While he carried no bitterness and had a cool, detached demeanour to it all, much like his spare vocals on his many memorable tunes, he certainly left legions of fans and musicians not only leaning on his music to get them through hard times, but that haunting voice which made us lean in and listen, always.
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