Bill Withers, the Grammy Award-winning singer known for songs including “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, and “Lovely Day”, has died at the age of 81. Withers passed away from heart complications.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the Withers family said, “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.”
Withers had a steadfast but understated (yet endlessly witty) persona, one that could likely be traced to his roots in the coal mining town of Buckley, West Virginia. Born in nearby Slab Fork, Withers decided to escape the area by joining the Navy at 18 years old. Two year after he was discharged in 1965, he relocated to Los Angeles. While working as an aircraft toilet installer, he spent his nights recording demos and performing in clubs around the city.
In 1970, Sussex Records owner Clarence Avant signed a then 31-year-old Withers to his first record deal and assigned Stax Records great Booker T. Jones to produce his debut. Featuring Stephen Stills on lead guitar and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Just As I Am was released in 1971 to immediate success. Its lead single, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, reached No. 3 on the pop charts, No. 6 on R&B, went platinum, and took home the 1972 Grammy for Best R&B Song. Despite bucking conventions by being so spare and lacking a true bridge, the song would become one of Withers’ career-defining songs.
In addition to covers of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, Just As I Am also featured the hit original “Grandma’s Hands”. Withers’ follow-up LP, 1972’s Still Bill, included the enduring friendship anthem “Lean on Me” and his Top 5 hit “Use Me”.
Despite releasing one more record with Sussex, 1974’s +’Justments, Withers’ time with the label was not without controversy. Vigorous in his belief in maintaining creative control over his work, he once destroyed the master recordings for an unreleased album. “I will erase a master tape and a master’s ass,” he said during a keynote address at the 2015 ASCAP Expo.
This staunch stance on creativity followed Withers to his second label home, Columbia. There, he infamously referred to A&R (an industry acronym for “artists and repertoire”) as “antagonistic and redundant.” Though he would release five albums on Columbia between 1975 and 1985 (including the Gold Menagerie in 1977, featuring “Lovely Day”), disagreements with the label led to Withers spending more time collaborating with other artists.
One of his biggest hit during this period wasn’t actually his own; he featured on jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s classic “Just the Two of Us”. The single earned him his second Golden Gramophone when he took home the 1981 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. He won again in that category in 1987 when Club Nouveau were awarded the prize for their cover of “Lean on Me”.
Withers largely stepped away from music in 1985. However, he did write two songs, “Simply Complicated” and “Playin’ the Loser Again” for Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 LP, License to Chill. He also appeared on the latter track. For the 2013 unveiling of the Bill Russell Legacy Project in Boston, Massachusetts, Withers penned “I Am My Father’s Son”, which was performed by Johnny Mathis.
Despite largely retiring after only 14 years, Withers’ legacy remained strong throughout his life. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and received ASCAP’s Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award a year later. A year after that, in 2007, “Lean on Me” was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2014, the definitive box set of his work, Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection, won the Grammy for Best Historical in a tie with The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Is My Darling — Ireland 1965.
Withers was welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, with Steve Wonder inducting him. “I see it as an award of attrition,” a surprised Withers said upon learning of the honor. “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.”
Indeed, numerous artists have adapted Withers’ work throughout the decades. BLACKstreet sampled “Grandma’s Hands” on the Dr. Dre-featuring hit “No Diggity”, Will Smith reworked “Just the Two of Us” in 1997, and Kendrick Lamar sampled “Don’t You Want to Stay” (“I Do This”) and “Use Me” (Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”). Withers has been covered by John Legend and The Roots, James Blake, Maroon 5, Jill Scott, Barbara Streisand, and countless others. At the 2017 Newport Folk Festival, a tribute set dubbed Grandma’s Hands Band featured Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Natalie Prass, Phil Cook, Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, and more collaborating on a set of covers.
That level of universality is almost unmatched in music history. As Questlove said prior to Withers’ RRHOF induction (via Billboard), “He’s the last African-American Everyman. [Michael] Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity… We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
Bill Withers is survived by his second wife, Marcia, who manages his publishing companies, and their two children, Todd and Kori.