Remembering Iconic Soul Legend And Songwriter Bill Withers

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison

Withers’ timeless music continues to inspire generations

Bill Withers
Iconic soul singer and songwriter Bill Withers – whose signature voice was behind timeless hits like “Lean On Me” – died March 30 from heart complications. HOLLYWOOD, CA – March 06: Bill Withers at the Ray Parker Jr. Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood, March 06, 2014. Credit: Janice Ogata/MediaPunch /IPX

Iconic soul singer and songwriter Bill Withers – whose signature voice was behind timeless hits like “Lean On Me,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” – died March 30 from heart complications. He was 81.

In a statement to The Associated Press (AP), Withers’ family said they hoped his music would continue to bring solace to the world during such a trying time.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the statement said. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

Born on Independence Day (July 4, 1938) in Slab Fork, Virginia, Withers served in the Navy and worked in factories before he pursued a music career. He taught himself to play the guitar and electric piano, signed to Sussex Records and eventually skyrocketed to the tops of music charts.

Known for the authentic, raw emotion in his songs, Withers is also the voice behind hits like “Lovely Day,” “Use Me,” “Just The Two Of Us” and “Watching You Watching Me.”

His skill at connecting with others through melodic storytelling earned Withers Grammy awards; songs listed on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; concerts at Carnegie Hall; and inductions into the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.

“I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. 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,” Withers once said.

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Just the two of us at the Grammy awards in 1982

A post shared by Bill Withers (@bill_withers1938) on

Since his songwriting came from such a sincere place, Withers didn’t fare well in his move to Columbia Records after Sussex went bankrupt. Withers said he experienced racism from Columbia execs during an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015.

“I don’t like your music or any Black music, period,” Withers said his Columbia A&R guy told him when they first met. He said another exec actually said, “Look at these ugly niggers,” while looking at the Four Tops in a magazine.

Withers found himself at an impasse when they revoked his complete control over his music.

“There were no black executives,” Withers recalled. “They’d say sh*t to me like, ‘Why are there no horns on the song?’ ‘Why is this intro so long?’ . . . This one guy at Columbia, Mickey Eichner, was a huge pain in the ass,” he added. “He told me to cover Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto.’ I’m a songwriter! That would be like buying a bartender a drink.”

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Contractually bound, Withers produced music, but his career lost momentum like as audiences yearned for his original style. It frustrated him, but he still loved music.

“Don’t cheat yourself out of music. Music is one thing. The music business is another thing,” Wither said. “Save enough of yourself to keep living anyway. Save enough joy in your heart to enjoy it. Let your reward be in the doing of it.”

Eventually, Withers decided he was unwilling to lose himself and continue fraught relationship with Columbia. He retreated from public life for the last 35 years of his life, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“There’s no rule that says your life has to be one thing,” Withers said. True to his words, he went on to successfully invest in real estate, manage his songwriting catalog through his publishing company and focus his attention on his family and other loved ones.

Withers’ lasting impact spans generations. He has been sampled by a slew of major artists including: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Eminem, Dr. Dre, J. Cole, Backstreet, Will Smith, Shawn Mendes, Tupac Shakur, and more.

Despite several attempts to get him to make a comeback, Withers was fine being in the annals of music history.

“I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson,” “It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”

Tributes from other artists poured in after his death.

“What a poignant writer whose songs are more relevant than ever right now. May music always bring us together! Rest in paradise to the magnificent #BillWithers,” Alicia Keyes tweeted along with a video of she and her son Egypt playing Withers’ “Lean On Me.”

https://twitter.com/aliciakeys/status/1246122679368908806

“Rest in power Bill Withers. Your voice, songs, and total expression gave us love, hope, and strength. My soul always has & always will be full of your music. Your humility displayed & depth of your power as you carried us all to a better place. You’re still & always will be Bill.” Lenny Kravitz wrote.

Actress Rosario Dawson tweeted, “Bill Withers you are beloved. I will forever lean on your music in times of need. So grateful the world got to share in the poetry & music you created in this lifetime. Thank you always. You’ve truly been a blessing. Rest In Paradise. Rest In Power. Please sing to my grandma…”

“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,” Chance The Rapper tweeted.

“Mourning the loss of my friend and inspiration, Bill Withers. 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,” John Legend wrote.

When asked about his transformative songs, Withers maintained it was about being relatable.

“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia,” Withers said.

Withers is survived by his wife Marcia, their children Todd and Kori, who is also a singer – and Ann Brown, Withers’ daughter from a previous relationship.