Bill Withers, the towering ’70s and early ’80s singer-songwriter who crafted some of his era’s most beloved soulful soundtracks, including “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” and “Lovely Day,” was known just as much for his defiant, guarded privacy after dropping out of the music industry in 1985 as he was for his soothing, maple syrup-soaked vocals.
After his family announced his death Friday at the age of 81 from heart complications, accolades and tributes rolled in for the everyman poet from the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia.
Withers had one of the most interesting origin stories in rock ‘n’ roll — he was an aircraft mechanic who recorded music demos after work that went on to be included on his breakthrough 1971 debut Just as I Am, featuring the heartbreaking million-selling single “Ain’t No Sunshine.” In his gold and platinum musical run, Withers embraced not only soul, but gospel, folk and jazz.
Yet there is another layer to the stripped-down genius of Withers: how he became a go-to sampling favorite for a diverse range of artists and producers from pop and R&B to hip-hop.
Yet there is another layer to the stripped-down genius of Bill Withers: how he became a go-to sampling favorite for a diverse range of artists and producers from pop and R&B to hip-hop.
The most notable song, of course, is Blackstreet’s 1996 no. 1 single “No Diggity,” which mined Withers’ 1971 elegantly nostalgic gem “Grandma’s Hands.” The ubiquitous Teddy Riley-produced single, featuring Dr. Dre and Queen Pen, has become a favorite of wedding DJs, featured in TV commercials and was arguably the highlight of the 2012 musical comedy Pitch Perfect.
“I knew ‘No Diggity’ was going to be a hit when Stylez played me the sample,” Riley told me back in 2012, recalling the time songwriter William Stewart put him onto that infectious snippet of “Grandma’s Hands.” There would not be a “No Diggity,” which is fueled by Withers’ hypnotizing church-fueled “hmm hmm,” without its heavy hook. “I had to use it,” Riley beamed. “Not only was it a funky riff, but [Bill] Withers’ voice was funky!”
And that’s the beauty of Withers’ music. It has been explored and used in myriad ways. “Ain’t No Sunshine” alone has been sampled and interpolated in 59 songs (!) from 2Pac (“Soulja’s Story”), DMX (“No Sunshine”) and Ghostface (“Nutmeg”) to Basehead (“Not Over You”) and Sean Mendes and Camila Cabello (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”).
Sean “Puffy” Combs and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence flipped the fat bassline from 1972’s “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” for LL Cool J’s 1997 club hopper “Phenomenon.” Kanye West lifted the melancholy piano run of Withers’ 1977 ballad “Rosie” for his underrated Patti LaBelle-featured tribute to his late grandmother “Roses” (2005). Travis Scott’s “90210” (2016) gives a nod to “Kissin’ My Love.”
Withers’ across-the-board impact was evident throughout the music community through an avalanche of emotional tributes.
“Mourning the loss of my friend and inspiration, Bill Withers,” tweeted John Legend, who sang with the music great in 2015 when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “He was such an incredible songwriter and storyteller. I’m so glad he shared his gift with the world. Life wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers said of Withers on Instagram: “Ahh man. Has anyone ever sang popular music better? Take a bath in that voice. He touched my heart every time. He had no interest in fame-game and power, so he stepped away from the music business as a young man, after he got what he needed, and enjoyed his life. Bill Withers I love you, an infinite wellspring of inspiration and joy.”
And Chance the Rapper tweeted, “Aw man, Bill Withers was really the greatest. Grandma’s Hands, Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me, Use Me Up, Just The Two Of Us and obviously Lovely Day are some of the best songs of all time. My heart really hurts for him, it reminds me of playing records with at my grandma’s house.”
Why has Withers’ music become all things to all people? It’s because he never tried to fit into one specific style, playlist or popular trend.
“I remember songs like ‘Lovely Day,’ which had kind of become part of the landscape,” he told CBS News in 2015 months after he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “When that was current, I was getting hassled by a record company for not making any hits.”
Of course, Columbia Records wanted more songs like the happy-go-lucky “Lovely Day,” an international hit that seemed out of place in a decade in which black music was black. At times, Withers came off like some unassuming country troubadour who rarely bothered to reach the gritty heights of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield. He certainly wasn’t as cool as Sylvester Stone. The meat-and-potatoes Withers was not as artistically conceptual as Stevie Wonder. Nor was he as sexy as Marvin Gaye, as down-home as the Staple Singers or as adventurously funky as George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic crew.
No, Withers’ secret was that he made songs to cling to for everyday life and occasions. “Lean On Me,” which would find new life in 1987 as a No. 1 pop and R&B hit for Club Nouveau, has become an anthem during the coronavirus pandemic as artists, choirs, and health care workers have posted renditions of Withers’ signature tune.
“There’s more fuss over me now than it was then,” he said in his trademark drawl just a few years ago. “In fact, when I played Carnegie Hall, the big question was could I play a place that big. I was playing clubs … When I was current, nobody was really making a big fuss over me.”
Still, we can all take solace in the fact that Bill Withers knew he was loved.