Bill Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back. According to the singer, his career lasted eight years. However, during that time, he wrote and recorded some of the most loved and covered songs of all time. Hits like “Lean on Me,” “Just The Two of Us,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” These songs featured simple, but soulful instrumentation and pure melodies that have not aged a second.
Withers was not born to play the record industry game. He frequently described A&R men as “antagonistic and redundant.” In return, many A&R men at Columbia Records, the label he recorded for beginning in 1975, considered him “difficult.” Yet when given the freedom to follow his muse, Withers wrote, sang, and produced some of the industry’s most enduring classics.
Withers, who died last week at the age of 81, came to prominence in what was one of the most historically significant eras of black music, particularly for male soul singers. However, the musician had not released any music in decades. Truth is, he faded to black long before he died. Withers had been out of the spotlight for so long that many thought he passed away years ago.
The “Lovely Day” singer was a hot commodity, appearing on hit stages such as “Soul Train” and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall. Even with his celebrity status, Withers refused to hire a manager, and instead, insisted on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs, writing the liner notes and designing his album covers. When speaking on the absence of management, the songwriter said:
Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema. Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.
To the end, Withers remained “his own man.” Although the singer died from heart complications on March 30, 2020, his family did not make his passing public until April 3. After walking away from the industry, Withers turned down more offers for comeback tours than he can count. When asked why an artist of his caliber would abandon his career, the three-time Grammy Award winner responded:
What else do I need to buy. I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, man, who treats me like gold. I don’t deserve her. My wife dotes on me. I’m very pleased with my life how it is. This business came to me in my thirties. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it, or it owned me.
Withers was a leading figure in the black singer-songwriter movement. He crafted quintessential ballads and groove-based tracks that are enduring classics. A masterful lyricist and brilliant vocalist, Withers made emotional connections with listeners on friendship, family, and vulnerability. His timeless songs have been covered and sampled by hundreds of artists, from Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson to Mary J. Blige and Willie Nelson.
In 2015, he was stunned after learning that he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The legendary musician was gifted to write songs that people could identify with. However, not willing to play the record industry game, Withers faded to black long ago.
In the 35 years prior to his death, Withers became a bit of a mystery. There were always artists whose work demanded comparison and there is not an oldies radio station in the country that does not find multiple opportunities to play those his hits.
Prior to his death, the celebrated entertainer spent the remainder of his life enjoying his wife and two kids and spending time relaxing in his West Hollywood home. Gone, but never forgotten, William “Bill” Harrison Withers Jr.’s life lives on through his music.
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Bill Withers
New York Times: Bill Withers, Who Sang ‘Lean on Me’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ Dies at 81
NPR: Bill Withers’ Legacy Is So Much Deeper Than The Hits We All Know
Top Image Courtesy Columbia Records – Wikipedia Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of onetwothreefourfive’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License