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The last time you heard of Bill Withers was probably when the Gap used his “Lovely Day” in a khakis commercial. The soul singer who wrote some of the most enduring songs of all time (“Lean on Me,” “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine”) hasn’t produced an album or performed live since 1988. So, when we heard he was flying in from Los Angeles to be honored at the sixth annual gala for Our Time, a theater and music community for people who stutter, our interest was piqued; would Withers, a former stutterer himself, perform?
It turns out he was planning to but got a painful muscle spasm in his neck earlier in the day. “Sleeping in the hotel, I got wrapped up in a pillow and woke up with this,” he said, pointing to a spot at the back of his neck. “If I emit any loud noises, I’ll pass out.” Instead, he gave a funny, inspiring speech about overcoming his problem with stuttering as a kid growing up in small-town West Virginia. “My mother used to warn me about teen pregnancy. And I used to laugh and think, ‘Man, I can’t even get one of these girls to smile,’” he said. “But if it hadn’t been for stuttering, I might have had a job in the coal mine and a wife with arthritis and twelve kids.” Then he had Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates act as his stand-in for a rousing rendition of “Lean on Me,” backed by the Our Time kids and the cast of Spring Awakening.
Still, we weren’t satisfied. We wanted to hear the man sing, and apparently we’re not alone. “People are always asking me, ‘Where’s Bill Withers been? Is he dead?’” said Howard Bingham, photographer and friend of Withers’s. “No, he’s not dead. He’s sitting at home collecting his checks from all those songs he’s written.” Withers admitted, “That’s probably true to some extent. The checks come in pretty regularly. There is a surprising amount of order in the way the music business runs.”
Fans poured down from the audience, many expressing a desire to hear him perform again. “Thank you. Glad to hear it,” he said, before changing the subject. “I thought this might happen,” he told us. “Nobody’s seen me in about twenty years.” So what’s he been doing? “I putter around the house,” he said, “and I’ve been batting around a few things with Jimmy Buffett.” Interest piqued again! What things? Would they take the sessions public? “I don’t know, dear,” he said. “I’ll be 70 years old in about five minutes. Mailmen get to sit around at age 65. We should all get to relax sometime. You know what the best thing about this time in life is? You don’t have to know what you’re doing next.” —Jada YuanBill Withers Refuses to Sing at Stuttering Benefit