Soul songwriting legend Bill Withers has passed away at age 81
R&B / soul icon Bill Withers – whose from-the-heart songwriting spread joy, hope and love across generations – has passed away today at age 81, according to a report in the Associated Press.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” said a statement from Withers’ family. “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. As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world.”
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1938, Withers moved to Los Angeles at age 29 after a stint in the Navy, where he penned and recorded a string of classics between 1970 and 1985, beginning with 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and also including “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lovely Day.”
Love and human connection were prevailing themes in Withers’ most enduring songs, though he wasn’t shy about addressing heavier social topics — “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” tackled the Vietnam War on a 1973 live album, for example.
Withers won his first songwriting Grammy in 1979 for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and his second a decade later for “Just The Two Of Us,” a collaboration with Grover Washington Jr. When the group Club Nouveau released an 80s pop version of his song “Lean on Me” (later featured in the Morgan Freeman film of the same name), he received his third and final Grammy award.
Withers retired from music in 1985, after tensions between himself and his then-label Columbia Records came to a head — as he said in a 2014 Rolling Stone profile, he found himself working as a black man in an environment where all the people in higher-up positions around him were white. He was second-guessed, misunderstood, and after particularly frustrating sessions for his album Watching You, Watching Me, he chose not to resign to the label — or any label — but he doesn’t regret it.
“This business came to me in my thirties,” Withers told Rolling Stone. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”
But his music endured for the next decade and beyond. His song “Grandma’s Hands” was prominently sampled in Blackstreet’s massive 1996 hit “No Diggity,” and “Just The Two of Us” was sampled or referenced in some 50 songs in the hip-hop / R&B canon, from Will Smith to Eminem to Bone Thugs N Harmony. His songs have been covered by artists including Jim James, Amos Lee, and John Legend.
“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” Questlove told Rolling Stone. “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.”
In their statement about his passing, Withers’ family acknowledged the fear and uncertainty of the moment in history surrounding his passing, and suggested that his music could offer solace to listeners old and new: “In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Below, celebrate Withers’ memory with some of his classics, as well as covers of his music from the Philadelphia community.