Bill Withers Dead At 81

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bill Withers Dead At 81

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bill Withers, one of the greatest soul musicians who has ever lived, has died. Withers’ family tells the Associated Press that he died of heart complications; no further details have been reported. Withers was 81.

Withers came to music late. He grew up in the tiny West Virginia town of Slab Fork, and he spent nine years in the Navy after enlisting at 18. In 1965, he moved to Los Angeles and worked on factory assembly lines while making demo tapes. Withers was already in his thirties when he finally signed to Sussex Records in 1970. The former Stax Records star Booker T. Jones produced Withers’ utterly perfect 1971 debut album Just As I Am, and Stephen Stills played guitar on it. Just As I Am includes the stunning reverie “Grandma’s Hands,” the bone-sick lament “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and a version of “Let It Be” that, for my money, is the best Beatles cover anyone has ever done. The lead single “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a two-minute acoustic koan that sounds like nothing else, before or since, and it peaked at #2.

When Withers first appeared, his folky, acoustic simplicity made him stand out. A year later, though, Withers changed his sound. He followed up Just As I Am with the fuller, funkier, almost-as-great Still Bill, and he scored the only Hot 100 #1 of his career with the timeless singalong “Lean On Me.” He recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall, released the loose and jazzy 1974 LP +’Justments, and performed at the historic 1974 soul festival in Zaire, just before the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman Rumble In The Jungle fight, that was captured in the documentaries When We Were Kings and Soul Power.

Sussex Records eventually went out of business, and Withers signed to Columbia in 1975. His music grew softer and poppier, though it still retained a whole lot of power. He had another huge hit with 1981’s “Just The Two Of Us,” a collaboration with the smooth jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. He also made the optimistic 1977 anthem “Lovely Day” in 1977 — not a huge hit at the time, but one that’s endured over the years, thanks in part to a whole lot of re-releases.

During his time at Columbia, Withers repeatedly clashed with the label’s execs, disdaining all commercial pressure. After his 1985 album You Watching Me, Withers left Columbia and essentially retired from music. For decades, Withers went into relative seclusion, refusing to perform or release music. But his songs continued to resonate. Club Nouveau had a #1 hit in 1987 with a cover of “Lean On Me,” and Blackstreet scored a #1 in 1996 when they sampled “Grandma’s Hands” on “No Diggity.”

In the 21st century, Withers made occasional brief and fleeting live-show appearances, and he wrote a couple of songs for Jimmy Buffet. He was the subject of a fascinating 2009 documentary called Still Bill, which focused on his time away from the spotlight and his decision not to take any further part in the music industry. That documentary revealed that Withers has continued to write and record music in the past decades but that he hadn’t elected to release it. Somewhere, there is presumably a vast trove of unreleased Bill Withers music.

In 2015, Withers joined the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, actually showing up at the ceremony, and came onstage at a Carnegie Hall tribute show that featured people like D’Angelo and Ed Sheeran. In 2017, Withers released a cover of country goofball Little Jimmy Dickens’ song “(You’ve Been Quite A Doll) Raggedy Ann” on a tribute album; it was his first new release in 32 years. Withers leaves a titanic legacy that includes some of the best songs ever recorded, in any genre. He’s a tremendous loss.

Below, watch some of Withers’ performances.

UPDATE: Withers family has shared a statement about his passing on Twitter.

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