The career of Bill Withers, who has died aged 81 of heart complications, followed an unusual trajectory. He did not try to enter the music industry until after he had spent nine years in the US Navy, leaving the service in 1965 and moving to Los Angeles two years later. By the time he released his debut album, Just As I Am, in 1971 he was 33, an age at which many pop careers have already been and gone.
But Withers made up for lost time. His album was packed with memorable songs, including Harlem and Grandma’s Hands, and entered the US Top 40. Ain’t No Sunshine, his first single, reached No 3 and became one of the landmark songs in his career, despite lasting a scant two minutes. Inspired by Blake Edwards’ gruelling 1962 film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, it has become an enduring anthem of loneliness and heartbreak.
His second album, Still Bill (1972), was another formidable collection (Rolling Stone called it “a stone-soul masterpiece”). It reached No 4 on the US album chart and gave Withers a No 2 hit with Use Me, as well as his sole chart-topping single, Lean on Me. This was an ode to the power of friendship conceived with the simplicity of a gospel classic, apparently the work of an artist in complete control of his music and his destiny. In October 1974 he performed in Zaire with James Brown, Etta James and BB King, in the run-up to the fabled Rumble in the Jungle world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
However, what looked like incipient megastardom never came to fruition. After the demise of his original record label, Sussex, Withers was signed to Columbia, where he was never comfortable and felt nothing but contempt for what he considered to be the company’s narrow-minded executives. Though he notched up two more definitive hit singles, the serene and mantra-like Lovely Day (1977) and the hook-up with the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr on Just the Two of Us (1981), his sales tailed off.
However, it was to Withers’ advantage that he had never considered music his sole purpose in life. “The business came to me in my 30s,” he later reflected. “I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”
His naval experience had given him self-confidence as well as the skills required of an aircraft mechanic. Before he signed a recording deal he supported himself by working at a variety of aircraft factories in California, paying to make his own demo recordings at night. Emerging from the other end of his music career, he never looked back. He focused on building a property portfolio in partnership with his second wife, Marcia, whom he married in 1976, while raising their children, Todd and Kori. Marcia also supervised the running of his music publishing company – “I’m lucky I married a woman with an MBA,” he pointed out.
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill was the youngest of six children of William Harrison Withers Sr., a coal miner, and his wife, Mattie. They divorced when Bill was three, and William Sr. died when he was 13. Growing up in poverty, Withers heard whatever music happened to catch his attention. “Mostly country music,” he recalled. “And there was music in church, and whatever they taught you at school. And then there was the old Frank Sinatra – Nat King Cole genre type music. So whatever I could stand to listen to, I listened to.” He remembered singing a capella gospel music, “because that’s something we could do without owning any instruments.”He had been born with a severe stutter: “People laughed right in my face when I was trying to say something.” At 17 he joined the navy and a speech therapy course organised by one of his commanding officers helped him to overcome it. The training perhaps also helped to give his singing voice its strength and emotional authority.
He had no involvement in music while in the navy, but back in the US he visited nightclubs – “I was only trying to meet girls, I wasn’t looking for any music” – and saw artists such as Lou Rawls. It occurred to Withers that music might be something he could do. “I probably had some kind of hidden poet buried in my soul somewhere,” he reflected. “Sort of a casual interest turned into a pursuit.”
He took some of his demo recordings to Ray Jackson, a member of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which led to them being heard by Clarence Avant, the head of the Sussex label. He liked what he heard, commenting that “Bill Withers is a genius storyteller.” He recruited Booker T Jones, of Booker T & the MGs, to produce an album, and with the aid of musicians including members of the MGs and Stephen Stills on lead guitar, Just As I Am was recorded. “His voice and guitar was all he had, and that was almost all that was necessary,” said Jones. “So I just tried to be minimalistic.”
Despite the huge attention brought by his first two albums, Withers was not happy. He did not enjoy touring, and his marriage to the TV star Denise Nicholas in 1973 brought mostly conflict. They divorced after barely a year and his album Justments (1974) was released in the aftermath. In 1975 Sussex went bankrupt, and Withers signed his ill-fated deal with Columbia. His final album for them, Watching You Watching Me, only reached 143 on the US chart. Withers launched a lawsuit to get out of his Columbia contract.
He did not release any new recordings after 1985, but Lovely Day, which reached No 7 in the UK in 1977, hit No 4 when it was reissued in 1988. The tune has been sampled by numerous artists including Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, R Kelly and Maroon 5. Withers won Grammy Awards for Ain’t No Sunshine, Just The Two of Us and Lean on Me, and his songs have been used in major films including Looking for Mr Goodbar, Jerry Maguire, Jackie Brown, Notting Hill, The Bodyguard and American Beauty. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and in 2006 received ASCAP’s Rhythm and Soul Heritage award. In 2015 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. In 2017 he was given an honorary degree from West Virginia University.
In 2009 Withers was profiled in the documentary Still Bill, which depicted a satisfied man experiencing no regrets about walking away from the music business. “When somebody asks ‘what have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he said in 2003. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.”
He is survived by Marcia and their children.