Bill Withers, who died last week at age 81 of heart problems, would have been a great songwriter no matter where or how he grew up. He worked so hard at carving out catchy melodies and chorus aphorisms that they would have resonated with listeners in any case. To merely read the titles of his most famous songs—“Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Use Me”—is to hear their familiar tunes. His words and music were wound together that tightly.
But what gave Withers’ music its distinctive flavor was his background. The 20th century had many brilliant songwriters who were raised black and urban, white and rural or white and urban, but Withers was one of very few who were raised black and rural. He grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, and it was there he learned the cadences and vocabulary of African-American blues and gospel, and it was there he learned the value of mountain songs that didn’t need more than one guitar and one voice to get over.
“People think all black people are street guys,” he told me in 1990, “but you can’t be a street guy if there aren’t any streets. I grew up in a small town, and all we had were roads. I’m a rural guy, so what comes out of me is rural. Nothing can come out of us that isn’t in us already, and what comes out in my songs is the simplicity I gained from my childhood. Even when my own language had become more sophisticated, I still wrote in the simple dialect of home in songs like `Ain’t No Sunshine’ and `Grandma’s Hands.’ Some of my best songs had a very simple subject like `Lean on Me.’”
His daddy was a coal miner, but the son wanted to stay out of the mines, so he enlisted in the Navy. That put him in touch with a wider world and a broader range of possibilities. After nine years in the service, he landed in Los Angeles and worked on his demos at night after his day job at Douglas Aircraft. His first album, Just as I Am, produced by Booker T. Jones, was released in 1971 and yielded the singles “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.”
“Ain’t No Sunshine,” which declared, “It’s not warm when she’s away,” was the inverse of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” which announced, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.” These two songwriters spearheaded a golden era of poetic soul music in the ’60s and ’70s, leading the way for fellow lyricists such as Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Earl King, Oscar Brown Jr., Don Bryant and Marvin Gaye. It was an era when the audience’s hunger for lyrics with substance met a generation of wordsmiths willing to supply the nutrition.
“That was a time when people wanted to hear poetry in their songs,” Withers told me. “Now people want to hear rhythm. That’s alright; people have a right to demand whatever they want for their entertainment…. Songwriters are like high jumpers; they only jump as high as they have to. If the standards for poetry in songs are set at three feet, that’s all the higher they’ll jump. Consumers haven’t required anything more from their entertainers, so that’s what they get. That’s alright—poetry doesn’t go away; it just plays for a smaller number of people.”
To get that eloquence into popular song, you have to work at it. And Withers did. He kept refining his demos by changing a few notes or words with every take, whittling the numbers down to their essence.
“I work on something,” he added, “until I can see it when I hear it. I like to say things so you get a picture in your mind. Everyone has a cut-off point that lets them know when they’ve finished a song. When I can see something, that’s when I put down my pencil and go watch ESPN.”
The best example of Withers’ visual songwriting is “Grandma’s Hands.” He describes those two swollen hands clapping in a West Virginia church, slapping a tambourine against one palm, handing a child a piece of candy, lifting the chin of a sobbing girl and picking up a boy who’s fallen. The subject matter is churches and small towns, and so is the sound of the music.
“Growing up,” he said, “I was never picked as the one who was going to do this. Through some strange twist of fate and some of my own efforts, at least when I die they’ll stick my name in the newspaper. I was probably a better aircraft mechanic than I am a singer, but it’s more fun doing this. It’s like sex—whether or not you’re the greatest lover in the world, at least you’re doing it. It’s like an old tap dancer; maybe his knees are gone and he can’t do the splits, but he has a big grin on his face.”
Withers worked hard until he decided he didn’t want to work hard anymore. After releasing seven studio albums and one live album in seven years, 1971-1978, he only released one more collection of new songs in his life: 1985’s underwhelming Watching You, Watching Me. He was 47 and walked away from his career. He still did the occasional show and contributed the occasional song to someone else’s album, but for the most part, he was done with show biz—done with the financial chiseling, done with the pressure to record dance music for black radio.
“That’s not my strength,” he claimed, despite making some of the funkiest records of the ‘70s. “I couldn’t dance if I hadn’t gone to the bathroom for a year. But I’m not going to be one of those sour-grapes older guys who says nobody does it like we used to. The new music is fun; it’s just different from what I do.”
Withers would be remembered if he had only written one song, “Lean on Me,” a song so popular, so indestructible that it’s more than a standard; it’s a folk song, sung by anybody and everybody. As long as there are church choirs singing at benefit concerts, panhandlers singing in the subway, bar bands offering a bit of uplift at the end of the night, or bedroom balladeers pouring out their souls on a webcam, people will be singing “Lean on Me.”
“That song was not one of those things—and I’ve done them—where you sit down and try to be clever,” he explained. “It was one of those things where you sit down and take your clothes off, look in the mirror and make an assessment. What I said in `Lean on Me’ was rooted in the way I grew up, and the language I used reflected the sound and the attitudes of the people I grew up with. It may not be grammatically correct, but it’s morally correct.”
“Lean on Me” was a #1 pop hit for Withers in 1972, a #1 pop hit for Club Nouveau in 1987, and a top-10 European hit for the 2-4 Family in 1999. The song has been recorded by Ike & Tina Turner, Al Green, Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, the Temptations, Seal and many more. Withers cashed royalty checks for the song throughout his long, comfortable retirement.
“I’ve got no complaints,” he told me. “I look at my life now, and it’s like, hey, man, this has been a pretty good roll for a guy from a little town in West Virginia. I’ve made some runs at it, and I’ve made some money and had some fun. Young people come along and still record my songs. I can make a record if I want to, but I’d rather spend the time home with my kids and snuggled up under my wife—it’s warm in there. One of my favorite quotes is from Louis Armstrong: `Better a has-been than a never-was.’”
Listen to an interview with Withers from 1988 via the Paste vault below.