It was the dog-end days of the 1960s. Psychedelia still hung like a haze in the air; Altamont’s bad taste lingered with it. Dylan was doing who knows what, the Beatles had broken up. The Black Panthers were both preparing for war and being entertained in Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue apartment. Four students were gunned down by National Guard troops at Ohio’s Kent State. And the Vietnam War was still going on — more than 10,000 dead in 1969 alone.
Into this perfervid environment came the sane, level sound of Bill Withers, who began recording a series of low-key albums of calm and matter-of-fact singer-songwritership. Withers, who died earlier this week of heart complications at 81, had talent and an air of imperturbable gravity. That combination made his deceptively simple songs sound genuinely real — and somehow necessary.
He may have been the most unusual star of his era, but only in the sense that he was normal in a way that virtually no rock stars were. He was, first of all, what was then considered to be old — over 30 when he recorded his first album, 1971’s Just As I Am. He was black, in a genre that had become almost entirely white. He was a vet — and not someone who’d done a tour after being drafted; he’d spent almost a decade in the Navy as a plane mechanic. And when he started recording he was a working person, toiling in factories for the aircraft industry in roles far beneath his Navy experience. (His big job: installing toilets in 747s.) And at a time when artists posed for album covers either as angelic hippies or glitzed-up stage stars, Withers wore his real life on his sleeve — on the cover of his debut you could see him leaning up against a brick wall holding a lunch pail.
And yet his first two albums each produced a hit that, 50 years later, remains in the public consciousness. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a sturdy and implacable lament distinguished by Withers’s delivery of the words “I know” more than two dozen times in the middle of the song, remains one of the realest and rawest paeans to lost love of the era; and “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill, based on a simple but elegant piano line, is a timeless gospel-inflected ode to friendship that’s been sung across the globe in recent, beleaguered weeks for that very reason.
He was separated enough from his contemporaries to have been born during the Depression, in 1938. (James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, and the like were all children of the postwar era; Withers was just a few years younger than Elvis Presley.) He’d grown up in West Virginia coal country in a company town. It was a segregated environment, but one several steps removed from the harsher realities of the Deep South, he said in the documentary Still Bill. His father, he said, had a barbershop: “He wasn’t a good barber but he told great stories.” He recalled his grandmother sitting on the porch of a house not bigger than a shack singing spirituals; he gained his own interest in music in church. A brother died when he was 7; his father passed away when he was 13.
He got out by enlisting in the Navy, long before Vietnam, in 1955. He began singing there, but later said he’d never owned a guitar; rather, he recalled, he wrote songs in his head while on duty or, later, working in a factory. He worked for years in L.A. and its environs, looking for a way to break into the industry.
As he poked around trying to sell his songs, he discovered another way he wasn’t normal: He wasn’t loud. (“They didn’t want me to do anything quiet,” he told an interviewer at the time about the reception to his subdued sound.)
When he got his break in 1970, on a label called Sussex, he ended up with support from Booker T. Jones and members of the Mussel Shoals Rhythm Section, as well as Stephen Stills. The resulting album, Just As I Am, included “Ain’t No Sunshine”; the single went gold, and the album hit the pop Top 40 albums list. The sound was unique for the time. It was unquestionably a quote-unquote black record; Withers was a soulful singer, and the gospel and folk-blues inflections were obvious. But it was also clear that he was not a typically upbeat, rhythmically friendly soul act; and a guy who carried a lunch pail was not going to be suited up like Barry White.
His second album, 1972’s Still Bill, produced “Lean on Me,” which became a No. 1 pop hit and drove the album into the top five. It had a more explicit R&B sound, including a slightly more funky cast on tracks like “Use Me” — but even this he smartly undercut with some mischievous dead stops in the production.
Like Dylan and not too many other acts from the time, Withers seems never to have lost perspective on his role as an artist, and never lost a sense of anger at the indignities of fame and the role of an artist in a decadent industry. It was an aspect of his personality that would eventually mean the end of his recording career.
Withers had a firm, rectitudinous cast, and wasn’t in the business to play games with his art. “[Label executives] had this R&B syndrome in their minds — the horns and the chicks and the gold lame suit.”
On the outside, at least, he professed indifference: “I wasn’t into that,” he shrugged. “[I thought] if they don’t let me do it the way I wanna do it, I got a good job making these toilets.” He seemed to never lose those detached, knowing attitudes toward the industry and stardom: “New words started to enter my life — like ‘handsome.’ Boy, you sure do get better looking when you have a hit record, I’ll tell you that!”
At the same time, he never played at being too cool to talk about his artistic process. Withers had an outsider’s view of the industry, and never lost it; the documentary Still Bill, which offers a somewhat selective account of the star’s life, has interesting footage of Withers speaking of the tension between artistic expression and the indignities of the music business in plain and raw language that is seldom heard:
“[You’re] searching through your feelings and your vulnerabilities and your strength and your weaknesses, and you’re already loaded up enough with the burden of just trying to find those feelings.
So then here come a whole bunch of guys trying to tell you what to do, with all their goofy suggestions — the R&B black guys, and the ones I like to call the ‘blacksperts,’ the white guys who are supposed to be experts, who have some tap into your black psyche. I had an A&R guy whose big suggestion to me was that I cover Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto.’ I was livid.”
Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and he never felt at home at his next label, Columbia Records, which was then the most powerful in the industry. “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period,’” he told Rolling Stone a few years ago. “I am proud of myself because I did not hit him. I met another executive who was looking at a photo of the Four Tops in a magazine. He actually said to me, ‘Look at these ugly niggers.’”
He cranked out albums through the decade, a total of eight. The best of these is Live at Carnegie Hall, a compelling and stark account of his artistry.
But by the end of the 1970s, as his album sales declined, he found himself increasingly overruled by his controllers at Columbia. After a five-year hiatus, he recorded one more album, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me, and then walked away from the industry. (His one respite was collaborations with other artists; ironically, “Just the Two of Us,” a duet with Grover Washington Jr. on Washington’s label, Elektra, became a No. 2 hit in 1980.)
He was tired of being a star, he said later. In the documentary there is a revealing song clip of Withers performing “Just the Two of Us” on a TV show. You can see him lip-syncing the song with professionalism — but also with a plain exasperation and, perhaps, an exhaustion as well. “The fame game was kicking my ass,” he said.
Withers was married briefly in the early 1970s to Denise Nicholas, then a star of the TV show Room 222. There is some indication Withers was something much less than an enlightened man at that point: “I am a male chauvinist,” he told Jet magazine proudly in one interview. In November 1972, Nicholas broke up with him. He flew to Tucson, Arizona, where she was filming a movie. Nicholas told police that Withers had beaten her up in her motel room, but later declined to press charges. She married him the next year, and they broke up for good a year later. He married again in 1976, to Marcia Johnson, and remained with her until his death; the couple had two children.
Withers has remained a touchstone for those who savor the remarkable spectrum of sounds and songs the 1970s produced. “He was my idol. I embraced all his records,” wrote the Roots’ Questlove in his musical memoir Mo’ Meta Blues. Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. The induction speech was given by Stevie Wonder, a trenchant example of the respect Withers had in the music industry, even 30 years after his last album release. (“This is a great man who has written some incredibly great songs,” Wonder said.) Withers’s own speech thanked Wonder and his many inspirations — and in classic Withers fashion took aim at the industry he snubbed as well: “This has got to be the largest AA meeting in the Western Hemisphere.”