Born on July 4, 1938, the youngest of six children; married actress Denise Nicholas (divorced).
Bill Withers's creative light burned brightly throughout the 1970s and dimmed in the mid-1980s. He recorded such hits as "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," "Use Me," and his final chartbusting single, "Just the Two of Us," (with Grover Washington). His presence on both the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts during this period was marked by the quiet assurance of his musical ability, subtle and soothing voice, the messages contained in his songs, and his innate ability to craft hit singles that appealed to listeners of all ages and races. His song "Lean on Me" has been covered many times, sampled by such acts as Mud and Club Nouveau, and was used as the title song of a 1989 Morgan Freeman film.
Withers was born in the impoverished rural area of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his father's death, he and his five siblings were raised by his mother and grandmother. He reportedly suffered a speech impediment while a young man, and displayed no interest in music until the mid-1960s. Withers served in the Navy for nine years. When he received his honorable discharge in 1967, he relocated to Los Angeles with the hopes of establishing himself as a performer. His first job on the West Coast was as a toilet-seat maker for Boeing Aircraft Company.
In the late 1960s Withers was introduced to Sussex Records' president Clarence Avant. Recognizing a great talent, Avant signed Withers and teamed him with Booker T. Jones, the formidable keyboardist for Booker T. and the MGs, which was the house and touring band for a host of Stax/Volt legends, including Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas. For Withers's debut album, Just As I Am, Jones enlisted co-production assistance from the MGs' legendary drummer Al Jackson Jr., bass playing from MG Donald "Duck" Dunn, and guitar work from Stephen Stills. Withers was still employed at Boeing while recording the album, and photo sessions for the album sleeve had to be conducted during his lunch breaks. Avant's instincts were rewarded with three 1971 hit singles for Sussex: "Ain't No Sunshine," which hit number three in the pop charts and number six in the rhythm-and-blues charts; "Grandma's Hands," which traveled to number 18 on the rhythm-and-blues charts; and the title track, which broke the top five on the rhythm-and-blues charts. "Ain't No Sunshine" further vindicated Avant's decision, after it won a Grammy Award as Best Rhythm-and-Blues Single. The Staple Singers scored a minor hit with their 1973 cover of "Grandma's Hands."
Withers proved himself immune to the sophomore slump that often hinders artists who recognize great success with their inaugural efforts. Still Bill, released in 1972, recorded with members of the 103rd St. Rhythm Band, was an immediate smash, yielding hits with "Lean on Me," "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)," and "Use Me." The thematic inspiration for "Lean on Me" derived from the sense of community Withers witnessed in the Slab Fork neighborhood of his youth. According to All Music Guide critic Ed Hogan, "Times were hard and when a [Slab Fork] neighbor needed something beyond their means, the rest of the community would chip in and help." Hogan related that Withers came upon the simple chord progression for the song while experimenting with a Wurlitzer electric piano: "The sound of the chords reminded Withers of the hymns that he heard at church while he was growing up." Largely on the strength of its number one pop and rhythm-and-blues chart topper, Still Bill went gold, capturing the number one rhythm-and-blues berth for six weeks and the number four pop position in 1972. In addition, the single "Use Me" captured number two berths in both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts for two weeks each. The song was later recorded by Aaron Neville and as a duet between solo Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz. The single "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" was covered in 1974 by Creative Source.
The remainder of the early 1970s was highly productive for Withers. He married actress Denise Nicholas, who played the guidance counselor in the highly popular ABC television series Room 222, and he starred in the horror blaxploitation film Blacula. He contributed the song "Better Days" to the Bill Cosby western film Man and Boy, and collaborated with R&B legend Bobby Womack on a remake of Womack's chestnut It's All Over Now, which was released on the United Artists label.
Withers continued to record albums for Sussex, including Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and 'Justments in 1974. He had a legal falling out with Sussex, however, and signed with Columbia Records. When Sussex later closed up shop, Withers bought the master recordings of his entire catalog, which enabled him to reissue his Sussex catalog on Columbia. Withers's hitmaking abilities continued on the new label, including such albums as 1975's Making Music, 1976's Naked & Warm, 1977's Menagerie, and 1979's 'Bout Love, and the singles "Make Love to Your Mind" and "Lovely Day."
In the 1980s Withers released only one album, 1985's Watching You Watching Me. Although he produced no albums, he teamed with songwriters Ralph MacDonald and William Salter to compose "Just the Two of Us," which he recorded with Grover Washington Jr. The song reached number three on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number two in the pop charts for three weeks in 1981. He also contributed vocals to the Crusaders' Rhapsody in Blues.
Although he produced sporadic recordings on minor labels and made several tours with Grover Washington in the 1990s, Withers ceased his recording activities. His recorded output of the 1970s and early 1980s and the reverence held for his body of work by other artists, however, have earned him a permanent position in the pantheon of pop and R&B crossover artists. In 1998, singer Al Jarreau paid homage to Withers by recording a CD of the artist's songs, titled Tribute to Bill Withers.
by Bruce Walker
Bill Withers's Career
Moved to Los Angeles to pursue recording career, 1967; recorded debut album, Just as I Am, 1971; released album Still Bill, 1972; recorded Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, 1974; released Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers, 1994.
Bill Withers's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Rhythm and Blues Song, for "Ain't No Sunshine," 1970.
- Selected discography
- "Ain't No Sunshine," Sussex, 1970.
- "Grandma's Hands," Sussex, 1971.
- "Lean on Me," Sussex, 1972.
- "Use Me," Sussex, 1972.
- "Let Us Love," Sussex, 1972.
- "Kissing My Love," Sussex, 1973.
- "Friend of Mine," Sussex, 1973.
- "Make Love to Your Mind," Columbia, 1975.
- "Lovely Day," Columbia, 1977.
- "Just the Two of Us" (with Grover Washington), Elektra, 1981.
- Just As I Am Sussex, 1971.
- Still Bill Sussex, 1972.
- Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall Columbia/Legacy, 1973.
- 'Justments Sussex, 1974.
- The Best of Bill Withers: Making Music CBS, 1975.
- Naked and Warm Columbia, 1976.
- Menagerie CBS, 1977.
- 'Bout Love CBS, 1977.
- Bill Withers' Greatest Hits Columbia, 1981.
- Watching You Watching Me Columbia, 1985.
- Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers Columbia/Legacy, 1994.
- The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 2001.
- "Bill Withers," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 25, 2005).