Legendary American singer-songwriter Bill Withers has died aged 81 following a heart condition. The three-time Grammy award winner is largely regarded as one of the most influential songwriters of all time and behind bona fide classics such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Lonely Day’.
It’s hard to express not only how much of an impact Withers’ songs had on popular music and, perhaps more importantly to the musician himself, the societal impact that he influenced on fellow marginalised African-American’s in the 1970s as he shot to fame.
Withers dominated the 1970s with a string of hits before going on to retire from music in the mid-1980s. Stepping away from the public eye, the singer went on to live out the next 35 years of his life raising his two children, Todd and Keri, that he shared with his wife Marcia Johnson whom he married in 1976.
Despite his retirement from making music, he still occasionally appeared in the public eye with his last appearance being in 2017 when he showed up on MSNBC to talk about the refugee crisis and the modern political climate.
Withers was a maverick and his early retirement from music proves that. Constantly unhappy with how Columbia’s A&R executives tried to take power away from him in a bid to sell more records, Withers grew tired of the music industry and refused to sign a record label after 1985 yet his legacy knows no bounds.
Here, we remember some of his best.
‘Lovely Day’, 1977
There’s no better way to remember Withers than with ‘Lovely Day’, the whole song is just one bundle of joy that is sure to put a giant smile upon your face whilst listening to it. At the end of the song, the incredible vocalist holds a note when he sings ‘Lovely Day’ for an incredible 18 seconds.
The music for the track was written by Skip Scarborough, whose positive aura rubbed off on Withers when they worked on the song, telling Songfacts: “The way Skip was, every day was just a lovely day. He was an optimist. If I had sat down with the same music and my collaborator had been somebody else with a different personality, it probably would have caused something else to cross my mind lyrically. It was a combination of the music and the person and the ambience in the room.”
‘Who Is He (And What Is He To You)’, 1972
This track is taken from Withers’ 1972 record Still Bill and sees him turn his hand to storytelling as his voice transports you straight into the scenario of catching his partner with another lover.
Withers’ vocals when delivering the devastating line “You’re too much for one man / But not enough for two” is powerful and instantly makes the listeners heartbreak.
‘Lean On Me’, 1972
This classic from Withers is an uplifting song about community and the good that comes from when people come together as one, a message which took on a life of its own after Withers retired. It was performed by Mary J Blige at HBO’s ‘We Are One’ event celebrating Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and the following day a crowd of supporters promptly began singing the track at the National Mall as they waited for doors to open to the inauguration itself.
Speaking about the track, Withers said: “This was my second album, so I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano. So I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, ‘OK, I like the way that phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.’ So you go back and say, ‘How do I arrive at this as a conclusion to a statement? What would I say that would cause me to say Lean On Me?’ At that point, it’s between you and your actual feelings, you and your morals and what you’re really like. You probably do more thinking about it after it’s done.”
‘Grandma’s Hands’, 1971
Withers grew up in a rural town in West Virginia and his Grandma Galloway, who the track is dedicated to, had a huge influence in his life and guided him, building up his self-confidence which was shattered as a child due to his stutter.
In the 2009 documentary Still Bill, he said about his Grandma: “I learned how to really love somebody from just a nice old lady. My favourite thing that I’ve written has to be about this favourite old lady of mine. Grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid.
“I wonder what it would have been like if my grandmothers had been on crack. You can tell how much difference it makes in people’s lives when they get good ones.”
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, 1971
It’s impossible to write a list about Withers without mentioning what is quite rightly regarded as his magnum opus, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. The track was Withers’ first hit and saw him catapulted into fame following serving nine years in the US Navy and working in an airplane factory for a period following that.
The inspiration for the song came from a film as Withers revealed years later, disclosing: “I was watching a movie called Days Of Wine And Roses (1962) with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison.
“Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you. It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.”