Lean on Me by Bill Withers.
Just as his 1972 hit Lean on Me was becoming an anthem for front line health care workers and first responders during the Coronavirus pandemic Bill Withers died on March 30 with his family making the announcement yesterday. The 81 year old singer and songwriter was not, however, a victim of the bug but succumbed to long standing heart problems.
Withers was a master of smooth soul music that often had an uplifting vibe during the 15 years of his active musical career in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.
Long before he was a star he was a working class guy, experiences that have led some to call him a Black Bruce Springsteen but his life was even humbler and entailed plenty of dirt under the fingernails.
He was born on July 4, 1938 as William Harrison Withers Jr. in the tiny coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia and brought up in nearby Berkley where a stutter made it hard to fit in. His father died when he was 13 leaving the family in dire financial straits. Desperate to get out he joined the Navy as soon as he could at age 18 and served a full nine years of active duty. He was rated as an aircraft mechanic but later joked he spent much of his time installing toilets.
While he was in the Navy Withers became interested in music and taught himself guitar and piano. He left the Navy in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 to with an eye on a possible music career and because there were plenty of good blue collar jobs to support himself in the meantime un till he could start a music career. He was a factory hand at several different companies including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night.
Bill Withers posed with his lunch box at is factory job for his first album which featured the break out hit Ain't No Sunshine.
In 1970 struggling Sussex Records signed him on the basis of those demo tapes and assigned him to work with producer and arranger Booker T. Jones formerly of Booker T. and the MGs at Staxx. After three recording sessions stretched out over nearly a year Withers’s first album, Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks, Ain’t No Sunshine and Grandma’s Hands as singles. Stephen Stills played lead guitar. All the while Withers kept punching in at his day job because he believed the music business was a fickle industry The album cover even pictured him at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank holding his lunch box.
When the singles, especially Ain’t No Sunshine which became an instant classic charted and album sales were brisk, Withers finally quit the day job and assembled a band built around members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band hit the road on tour. Sunshine earned an RIAA Gold Record for sale of a million records in September of 1971 and the following year won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. Withers was a certified star.
Bill Withers in live performance.
He followed up with a second album, Still Bill which featured the anthem Lean on Me which went to #1 as a single on the week of July 8, 1972. His second gold single had confirmed sales of over three million. Use Me, another went gold in October. A month later he recorded Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall.
But trouble lay ahead. Up to this time Withers and Booker T. had free hands in selecting what they could record. But Sussex Records was in trouble and disputes with company executive kept his third studio album +/Justments from being released. When the company folded industry giant Columbia Records swooped in and bought Withers’s contract and his back catalog which enabled the label to re-issue compilations of his work. But executives refused to allow Withers to record some his new material and leaned on him to add more covers. A particularly bitter dispute erupted when they pressured him to cover an Elvis Pressley song. He did an album a year for four years for Columbia, none of which matched his sales at Sussex. The third album, Menagerie did better than the others had featured the moderate hit Lovely Day which did exceptionally well in Britain.
Fed up with Columbia, Withers spent most of his time after 1977 working in collaboration with other artists on their labels including Just the Two of Us with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. with which he won his third Grammy in 1980, Soul Shadows with the Crusaders, and In the Name of Love with Ralph MacDonald, and the album Dreams in Stone with French singer Michel Berger.
In 1985 he finally completed his contractual obligation to Columbia with a new studio album, Watching You Watching Me, which featured the Top 40-rated R&B single Oh Yeah. In press interviews Withers complained that two of the first three singles released, were the same songs which were rejected in 1982 and that the label had signed and promoted non-singing actor Mr. T while preventing him from releasing his own music.
After touring in support of the album with Jennifer Holliday Withers walked away from the music industry and never looked back. He had lost all interest in the back stabbing and intrigue that were part of the recording end of the business and just plain tired of touring. Not becoming a success until age 32 meant that in his words he was “socialized as a regular guy” who had a life before show business and could have an ordinary life again.
Withers with John Legend at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Withers seldom emerged in public, most notably at the At the 30th Annual Grammy Awards in 1988 when he won the Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song Songwriter for the re-recording of Lean on Me by Club Nouveau, in 2005 when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and 2015 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In that awards program he jammed on stage with Stevie Wonder and John Legend on Lean on Me.
Withers summed up his career—“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.”