Bill Withers, Writer and Singer of ‘Lean on Me’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ Dies at 81
Withers was 33 years old and working on an aircraft assembly line in 1971 when his first hit, the self-penned, Grammy-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine,” soared up the charts. He quickly followed up that success with a quick run of hit singles that included “Use Me” and the gospel-soul smash “Lean On Me,” which won a belated Grammy Award as best R&B song in 1987.
Bill Withers got a late start. He was nearing 30 when he began writing songs on a cheap guitar between shifts at an aircraft-parts factory. “I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. A demo he made caught the ear of Clarence Avant, head of indie label Sussex, and Withers went on to cut some of the most enduring albums of the Seventies, filled with intimate, slow-burning songs that packed a serious emotional wallop. He continued to notch hits till the mid-Eighties, when he became fed up with meddling from his later label Columbia and walked away from the business altogether. But his modest body of work still stands as a gold standard of R&B excellence. Here are 10 of Withers’ greatest tracks.
One of Withers’ most moving, elegiac meditations, “Ain’t No Sunshine” feels like a mini movie with its sparse arrangement and occasional cinematic strings. Its power is the pure emotion the artist pours into the vocals, as he laments the fact that “this house just ain’t no home” since a lover has left. Withers sings “I know” an astonishing 26 times, and it registers like a lyrical pile driver — you feel the loss right along with him. “I was watching a movie called Days of Wine and Roses, with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon,” he once said of what inspired the song. “They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you. It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.” K.G.
“Most of us at some point in our lives have somebody that means more to us than anybody has ever meant before or will ever mean again,” Bill Withers said when introducing “Grandma’s Hands” at a 1973 BBC performance. “In my case, I learned how to really love somebody from … just a nice old lady who used some very nice old gnarled hands to make life kind of nice for me at that time when I really needed somebody.” Withers stuttered growing up, and took solace in his grandmother’s steadfast care. In a somber and reverent tone, the brief yet quietly shattering song catalogs his memories of the woman whose hands did everything from clap in church to “[soothe] a local unwed mother” and “[pick] me up each time I fell.” The poetic detail that the same hands used to “ache sometimes and swell” shows the toll her compassion took. “If I get to heaven,” Withers sings, “I’ll look for grandma’s hands.” “Out of all the things that I might have written,” he said on the BBC show, “my favorite thing has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.” H.S.
Withers’ reputation grew exponentially in the following years, driven in part by the Morgan Freeman-starring 1989 film “Lean on Me” (and an earlier cover of the song by Club Nouveau that won a Grammy), but most of all by the lasting impact of his songs. His music has been covered by hundreds of artists, and sampled by hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and BLACKstreet. His evergreen copyrights were overseen by his second wife, Marcia, who ran his Beverly Hills publishing office.
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