When it comes to people in the music business that I came close to interviewing or wish I could have interviewed, two people come to mind–Billy Preston and Bill Withers. I was very close to interviewing Billy Preston but he diagnosed with kidney disease. And in 2011, I had a chance to promote a documentary on Bill Withers and interview him. Our schedules never synced up.
Although he was famous and widely respected among his peers, I always felt that Bill Withers was deserving of wider recognition. One of the best tributes to Bill Withers is the following Rolling Stone magazine article and “Still Bill,” the documentary (at the bottom of this article) on his life and music career.
Gary Johnson, Publisher-Black Men In America.com
Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away by Andy Greene
On a clear day, you can see the Staples Center from Bill Withers’ house, which sits high in the hills above West Hollywood. Today, in about two hours, the Los Angeles basketball arena will host the Grammy Awards; every once in a while, a limo will rush through Withers’ neighborhood, on its way to the event. But the 76-year-old Withers could not be less interested. He’s padding around his home wearing Adidas track pants, an old T-shirt with a drawing of a bus on it, and athletic sandals with blue socks. On the mantel in a hallway, there is a Best R&B Song award, for 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” from the last time he attended the show, three decades ago; it sits next to two other Grammys, for 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and 1972’s “Lean on Me.” A few years after “Two of Us,” Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back. “These days,” he says, “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”
As the Grammy telecast begins, and AC/DC kick off the show, Withers jumps into his Lexus SUV and heads down to his favorite restaurant, Le Petit Four; he has a hankering for liver and onions but settles for the blackened catfish. The hostess knows him by name, but otherwise he blends into the crowd. “I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson,” he says, still musing on the Grammys. “It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”
Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’ ”
Others don’t believe he is who he says: “One Sunday morning I was at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. These church ladies were sitting in the booth next to mine. They were talking about this Bill Withers song they sang in church that morning. I got up on my elbow, leaned into their booth and said, ‘Ladies, it’s odd you should mention that because I’m Bill Withers.’ This lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You’re too light-skinned to be Bill Withers!’ ”
His career lasted eight years by his own count; in that time, he wrote and recorded some of the most loved, most covered songs of all time, particularly “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” — tunes that feature dead-simple, soulful instrumentation and pure melodies that haven’t aged a second. “He’s the last African-American Everyman,” says Questlove. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
Withers was stunned when he learned he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. “I see it as an award of attrition,” he says. “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
Withers’ hometown is in a poor rural area in one of the poorest states in the Union. His father, who worked in the coal mines, died when Bill was 13. “We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhood,” he says. “I heard guys playing country music, and in church I heard gospel. There was music everywhere.”
The youngest of six children, Withers was born with a stutter and had a hard time fitting in. “When you stutter, people have a tendency to disregard you,” he says. That was compounded by the unvarnished Jim Crow racism that was a way of life in his youth. “One of the first things I learned, when I was around four, was that if you make a mistake and go into a white women’s bathroom, they’re going to kill your father.” He was a teenager when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was beaten to death by two men who were cleared of all charges by an all-white jury. “[Till] was right around my age,” says Withers. “I thought, ‘Didn’t he know better?’ ”