Bill Withers, the sweet baritone voice behind classic songs like "Ain & # 39; t No Sunshine", "Lean on Me" and "Use Me" is dead. Withers was 81 years old. According to a family statement given to the Associated Press, he died Monday in Los Angeles of heart complications. (On Friday morning, Withers' official Facebook page shared a Billboard obituary that references the AP reports.)
Withers, who disdained the machinations of the recording industry, stopped recording in 1985, just 14 years after becoming a star with his debut album, Just As I Am.
The son of a West Virginia coal miner, William Harrison Withers, Jr. was born on July 4, 1938. He grew up with a stutter and was one of the 13 children in his family. Only six survived childhood.
He was the first man in his family not to enter the mines, and he couldn't wait to get away from where he grew up, as he told NPR & # 39; s Morning Edition in 2015.
Withers' father died when he was only 13 years old. Soon, another tragedy hit the family. "My social idol was my older brother," Withers told NPR. "He was injured in the coal mines, he was crushed by a coal car, so he could no longer work there." Withers' brother became a postman, and he also saw a way out of the mines.
Withers joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1956. After a nine-year season, he moved first to San Jose, California and, a couple of years later, to Los Angeles. For a time, he was a milkman, and then he worked in an airplane parts factory. In the evenings, he sat as a singer in small clubs in the city. Between shifts, he learned to play the guitar and started writing his own songs, which he started buying on labels.
Withers was first signed by Clarence Avant on Sussex Records; Avant brought in Booker T. Jones to produce Just As I Am from 1971. (Stephen Stills played solo guitar).
The album resulted in the single "Ain & # 39; t No Sunshine", which went to No. 3 on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best R&B Song the following year.
But, as Withers told NPR, "Ain & # 39; t No Sunshine" had started out as a B-side; The representatives of the record company did not see the promise of the song. "The disc jockeys, God bless them, delivered it, and that's how I started," he said, adding a zinger: "I call A&R ('artists and repertoire' record label decision makers) 'antagonistic and redundant.', & # 39; and because of that, because they make those great decisions like that.
The Just As I Am cover shows Withers standing at the door of the factory where he still worked while filming the project, carrying his lunch bucket. At the time, Withers was already 32 years old.
The following year, Withers released a second album, Still Bill. His first single, "Lean on Me", went to number 1; the album's second single, "Use Me," went to number 2. Withers also became a much-sought-after songwriter for other artists, composing for stars like Gladys Knight and José Feliciano. He made two more albums for Sussex – Live At Carnegie Hall from 1973 and + & # 39; Justments – from 1974 – before the label was doubled.
Withers signed with the Columbia Records label in 1975, but it was not a happy deal. Withers wanted to continue writing his own songs, but later said in interviews that Columbia tried to turn him into someone he was not, urging him to record versions of Elvis Presley, for example. Columbia thought it was difficult working with him. What happened, it was clear that the two sides simply did not fit.
None of Withers' five albums for Columbia reached the Top 40. In 1981, he had his last big hit: "Just The Two Of Us," a duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. Four years later, his recording contract with Columbia ended, and Withers, for all intents and purposes, moved away from public view as performing artists. (However, he did occasionally continue to write songs for others: for example, he wrote for Jimmy Buffett's 2004 album, License To Chill, as well as George Benson's 2009 Songs And Stories project.)
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. At the time, he told Rolling Stone: "I see it as a wear award. The few songs I wrote during my brief career, there is no genre that anyone He didn't record them. I'm not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people identify with. I don't think I've ever done a kid from Slab Fork, West Virginia wrong. "