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Withers, Bill

Withers, Bill

1938—

Singer, songwriter

Singer/songwriter Bill Withers has described his approach to his craft in this way: "I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you," according to his official Web site. His approach has obviously served Withers well; his songs have been recorded by literally hundreds of top performers over the years, including the likes of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, and Mick Jagger, just to name a few. Withers, a three-time Grammy Award winner, is best known for his such memorable classics as "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Just the Two of Us." Millions of people around the world instantly recognize his smooth, expressive voice—a voice perfectly suited for the songs of sincere, honest emotion that he has written throughout his career.

Bill Withers was born on July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, a small coal-mining town in a poor, rural area of West Virginia. His father, a coal miner, died when Withers was 13 years old, leaving his mother and grandmother to raise him and his five older siblings in nearby Beckley, West Virginia. As a teenager, Withers helped

support the family by working odd jobs, before joining the Navy at age 17. He served in the Navy for nine years, during which he traveled throughout the Far East.

Los Angeles Move Brought Eventual Success

Withers was discharged from the Navy in 1965. He had always been a talented singer, and around this time he began to consider trying to find a way to make a living at it. Unable to find original songs that adequately conveyed his feelings, he started writing his own around that time. In 1967, Withers moved to Los Angeles, the capital of the music business, to try his luck at becoming a professional performer.

In Los Angeles, Withers began recording demo versions of his original songs in hopes of obtaining a recording contract with a major label. Meanwhile, he supported himself working full-time making toilets for the aircraft manufacturer Boeing. Withers was initially frustrated in his attempts to break into the music industry. He spent countless hours and substantial sums of money sending out his material to record companies, but in spite of his time-consuming and expensive efforts, his music failed to impress any of the personnel whose desks it landed on. His luck finally changed in 1970 when a demo of Withers' songs arrived in the office of Clarence Avant, president of Sussex Records. Avant signed Withers to a contract and quickly introduced him to Booker T. Jones, leader and keyboardist of the successful R&B group Booker T. and the MGs.

Struck Gold with Debut Album

Withers' debut album, Just as I Am, was released in 1971. The album, produced by Booker T., was a hit with both critics and consumers. Three of the songs on the album became hit singles. One of them, "Ain't No Sunshine," went gold and received a Grammy Award for best R&B song. The follow-up single, "Grandma's Hands," reached number 18 on the R&B charts. A third song, "Just as I Am," which featured guitar work by folk-rock giant Stephen Stills, hit number 5 on the R&B charts later that summer. A backup band was quickly assembled, and Withers toured extensively over the next several months in support of the album.

Withers'; next album, Still Bill, was recorded during a short break in the touring schedule. Released in 1972, it contained more songs destined for legendary status. "Lean on Me" was inspired by Withers"; childhood in rural West Virginia, where families and neighbors relied on each other for survival during the frequent hard times that enveloped the community. Withers came up with the unmistakable chord progression that starts the song while playing around on a new Wurlitzer electric piano. He stumbled upon a series of chords that reminded him of the hymns he had sung as a child in Slab Fork. "Lean on Me" reached the top of the pop and R&B charts in the summer of 1972 and stayed there for three weeks. Another of the album's songs, "Use Me," also went gold and lasted for two weeks at number two on both charts that fall. A third single from the album, "Who Is He (And What Does He Mean to You?)" was also a big seller.

For a short time in the early 1970s, Withers was married to Denise Nicholas, best known for her roles in television's Room 222 and the 1972 blaxploitation-horror film Blacula. In 1973 Withers performed a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, which resulted in the concert album Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall. After the release in 1974 of his next studio album, 'Justments Withers got into a legal tussle with Sussex, and was unable to record on the label again. He managed to keep busy during his label limbo, writing and producing a couple of songs for Gladys Knight and the Pips and performing in concert along with James Brown, Etta James, and blues legend B.B. King at the historic Mohammed Ali/George Foreman boxing batch in Zaire in the summer of 1974. The following year, Withers parted ways with Sussex for good and signed with Columbia Records. With Columbia, he continued to record prolifically through the second half of the decade, releasing the albums Making Music, Making Friends (1975), Naked and Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977), and 'Bout Love (1979).

Songs Live on via Covers

After cranking out albums at a rate of almost one per year during the late 1970s, Withers did not make another record until 1985. He was not idle during the early 1980s, however. In 1981 he collaborated with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. on the monster hit song "Just the Two of Us," which Withers co-wrote with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter. The song earned Withers four Grammy nominations, and he and his writing partners took home the award for songwriting.

At a Glance …

Born on July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, WV; married Denise Nicholas (divorced); married Mattie. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1956-65.

Career:

Boeing, airline mechanic, 1960s; professional songwriter, 1967-; Sussex Records, recording artist, 1971-75; Columbia Records, recording artist, 1975-?.

Awards:

Grammy Award, Best Rhythm & Blues Song, "Ain't No Sunshine," 1971; NAACP Image Award, Male Singer of the Year, 1972; NAACP Image Award, Single Record of the Year, 1972; Grammy Award, Best Rhythm & Blues Song, "Just the Two of Us," 1981; Grammy Award, Best Rhythm & Blues Song, "Lean on Me," 1987; Clio Award (advertising), Production and Writing, "When I Cook I Cook," 1992; Middlebury College, honorary doctorate, 1999; Mountain State University, honorary doctorate, 2002; Songwriters Hall of Fame, inductee, 2005; ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Heritage Award, 2006.

Withers released his last album, Watching You, Watching Me, in 1985. By then, he had grown disenchanted with the music industry, and able to make a more-than-comfortable living from the royalties on his 1970s hits, he gave up recording. While he stopped making new recordings himself, Withers' songs continued to receive new life in the form of cover versions by other artists. In 1987 he received his third songwriting Grammy, and ninth Grammy nomination overall, for Club Nouveau's remake of his 1972 hit "Lean on Me." The song was recorded again in 1992 by Michael Bolton for President Bill Clinton's inauguration celebration. A Will Smith version of "Just the Two of Us" was used to great comic effect in the 1999 movie Austin Powers: TheSpy Who Shagged Me. In 1998, singer Al Jarreau released Tribute to Bill Withers, an album of his own covers of memorable Withers songs.

Withers continued to perform live intermittently in the 1990s, often with Grover Washington, Jr., but by the end of the decade he had mostly stopped performing in public. In 2004 he recorded a duet with singer Jimmy Buffett, "Playing the Loser Again," which appeared on Buffett's album License to Chill. By the time Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, his songs had been recorded by literally hundreds of the world's greatest performers, in styles ranging from jazz to classical to country to hip-hop. Even if he were to choose to never sing another note in public again, Withers stature as one of the great American songwriters of the last half-century is beyond dispute.

Selected discography

Albums

Just As I Am, Sussex, 1971.

Still Bill, Sussex, 1972.

Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Columbia/Legacy, 1973.

'Justments, Sussex, 1974.

Making Music, Making Friends, CBS, 1975.

Naked and Warm, Columbia, 1976.

Menagerie, CBS, 1977.

'Bout Love, CBS, 1979.

Watching You Watching Me, Columbia, 1985.

Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers, Columbia/Legacy, 1994.

Singles

"Ain't No Sunshine," Sussex, 1970.

"Grandma's Hands," Sussex, 1971.

"Lean on Me," Sussex, 1972.

"Use Me," Sussex, 1972.

"Let Us Love," Sussex, 1972.

"Kissing My Love," Sussex, 1973.

"Friend of Mine," Sussex, 1973.

"Make Love to Your Mind," Columbia, 1975.

"Lovely Day," Columbia, 1977.

"Just the Two of Us" (with Grover Washington), Elektra, 1981.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard, October 22, 2005, p. 72.

Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1985, p. 1.

People's Weekly, July 1-7, 2006, p. 13.

Playboy, February 1973.

Skanner (Portland, OR), May 11, 1978, p. 10.

Vibe, April 1997.

Washington Post, January 27, 1989, p. D10; February 1, 1991, p. W13.

On-line

"Bill Withers," Soul Tracks,www.soultracks.com/bill_withers.htm (March 8, 2007).

"Bill Withers Biography," Bill Withers Music,www.billwithersmusic.com/htmlWork/bio1.html (March 8, 2007).

"Bill Withers: Biography," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:be831vsjzzba~T1 (March 8, 2007).

"The Mythbuster: An Interview with Bill Withers," PopMatters,www.popmatters.com/music/interviews/withers-bill-060131.shtml (May 23, 2007).

"Puremusic Interview with Bill Withers by Bill DeMain," Puremusic,www.puremusic.com/withers1.html (May 23, 2007).

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Withers, Bill

Bill Withers

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

Bill Withers's creative light burned brightly throughout the 1970s and dimmed in the mid-1980s. He recorded such hits as "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," "Use Me," and his final chartbusting single, "Just the Two of Us," (with Grover Washington). His presence on both the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts during this period was marked by the quiet assurance of his musical ability, subtle and soothing voice, the messages contained in his songs, and his innate ability to craft hit singles that appealed to listeners of all ages and races. His song "Lean on Me" has been covered many times, sampled by such acts as Mud and Club Nouveau, and was used as the title song of a 1989 Morgan Freeman film.

Withers was born in the impoverished rural area of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his father's death, he and his five siblings were raised by his mother and grandmother. He reportedly suffered a speech impediment while a young man, and displayed no interest in music until the mid-1960s. Withers served in the Navy for nine years. When he received his honorable discharge in 1967, he relocated to Los Angeles with the hopes of establishing himself as a performer. His first job on the West Coast was as a toilet-seat maker for Boeing Aircraft Company.

In the late 1960s Withers was introduced to Sussex Records' president Clarence Avant. Recognizing a great talent, Avant signed Withers and teamed him with Booker T. Jones, the formidable keyboardist for Booker T. and the MGs, which was the house and touring band for a host of Stax/Volt legends, including Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas. For Withers's debut album, Just As I Am, Jones enlisted co-production assistance from the MGs' legendary drummer Al Jackson Jr., bass playing from MG Donald "Duck" Dunn, and guitar work from Stephen Stills. Withers was still employed at Boeing while recording the album, and photo sessions for the album sleeve had to be conducted during his lunch breaks. Avant's instincts were rewarded with three 1971 hit singles for Sussex: "Ain't No Sunshine," which hit number three in the pop charts and number six in the rhythm-and-blues charts; "Grandma's Hands," which traveled to number 18 on the rhythm-and-blues charts; and the title track, which broke the top five on the rhythm-and-blues charts. "Ain't No Sunshine" further vindicated Avant's decision, after it won a Grammy Award as Best Rhythm-and-Blues Single. The Staple Singers scored a minor hit with their 1973 cover of "Grandma's Hands."

Withers proved himself immune to the sophomore slump that often hinders artists who recognize great success with their inaugural efforts. Still Bill, released in 1972, recorded with members of the 103rd St. Rhythm Band, was an immediate smash, yielding hits with "Lean on Me," "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)," and "Use Me." The thematic inspiration for "Lean on Me" derived from the sense of community Withers witnessed in the Slab Fork neighborhood of his youth. According to All Music Guide critic Ed Hogan, "Times were hard and when a [Slab Fork] neighbor needed something beyond their means, the rest of the community would chip in and help." Hogan related that Withers came upon the simple chord progression for the song while experimenting with a Wurlitzer electric piano: "The sound of the chords reminded Withers of the hymns that he heard at church while he was growing up." Largely on the strength of its number one pop and rhythm-and-blues chart topper, Still Bill went gold, capturing the number one rhythm-and-blues berth for six weeks and the number four pop position in 1972. In addition, the single "Use Me" captured number two berths in both the rhythm-and-blues and pop charts for two weeks each. The song was later recorded by Aaron Neville and as a duet between solo Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz. The single "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" was covered in 1974 by Creative Source.

The remainder of the early 1970s was highly productive for Withers. He married actress Denise Nicholas, who played the guidance counselor in the highly popular ABC television series Room 222, and he starred in the horror blaxploitation film Blacula. He contributed the song "Better Days" to the Bill Cosby western film Man and Boy, and collaborated with R&B legend Bobby Womack on a remake of Womack's chestnut It's All Over Now, which was released on the United Artists label.

Withers continued to record albums for Sussex, including Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and 'Justments in 1974. He had a legal falling out with Sussex, however, and signed with Columbia Records. When Sussex later closed up shop, Withers bought the master recordings of his entire catalog, which enabled him to reissue his Sussex catalog on Columbia. Withers's hitmaking abilities continued on the new label, including such albums as 1975's Making Music, 1976's Naked & Warm, 1977's Menagerie, and 1979's 'Bout Love, and the singles "Make Love to Your Mind" and "Lovely Day."

In the 1980s Withers released only one album, 1985's Watching You Watching Me. Although he produced no albums, he teamed with songwriters Ralph MacDonald and William Salter to compose "Just the Two of Us," which he recorded with Grover Washington Jr. The song reached number three on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number two in the pop charts for three weeks in 1981. He also contributed vocals to the Crusaders' Rhapsody in Blues.

Although he produced sporadic recordings on minor labels and made several tours with Grover Washington in the 1990s, Withers ceased his recording activities. His recorded output of the 1970s and early 1980s and the reverence held for his body of work by other artists, however, have earned him a permanent position in the pantheon of pop and R&B crossover artists. In 1998, singer Al Jarreau paid homage to Withers by recording a CD of the artist's songs, titled Tribute to Bill Withers.

Selected discography

Singles

"Ain't No Sunshine," Sussex, 1970.

"Grandma's Hands," Sussex, 1971.

"Lean on Me," Sussex, 1972.

"Use Me," Sussex, 1972.

"Let Us Love," Sussex, 1972.

"Kissing My Love," Sussex, 1973.

"Friend of Mine," Sussex, 1973.

"Make Love to Your Mind," Columbia, 1975.

"Lovely Day," Columbia, 1977.

"Just the Two of Us" (with Grover Washington), Elektra, 1981.

Albums

Just As I Am, Sussex, 1971.

Still Bill, Sussex, 1972.

Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, Columbia/Legacy, 1973.

'Justments, Sussex, 1974.

The Best of Bill Withers: Making Music, CBS, 1975.

Naked and Warm, Columbia, 1976.

Menagerie, CBS, 1977.

'Bout Love, CBS, 1977.

Bill Withers' Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1981.

Watching You Watching Me, Columbia, 1985.

Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers, Columbia/Legacy, 1994.

For the Record …

Born on July 4, 1938, the youngest of six children; married actress Denise Nicholas (divorced).

Moved to Los Angeles to pursue recording career, 1967; recorded debut album, Just as I Am, 1971; released album Still Bill, 1972; recorded Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, 1974; released Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers, 1994.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best Rhythm and Blues Song, for "Ain't No Sunshine," 1970.

Sources

Books

The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 2001.

Online

"Bill Withers," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 25, 2005).

BruceWalker

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