A TRIBUTE TO BILL WITHERS
Soulful singer-songwriter Bill Withers died on March 30, 2020. Born in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, WV, and raised in the town of Beckley, he was 81 and suffered from a heart ailment—not the coronavirus, apparently.
As we wish peace for Bill, his family and his loved ones, let’s remember what he to all of our lives, of many different ages and perspectives, during a bumpy decade in America.
Booker T. Jones, former leader of Booker T. & the M.G.s of Stax Records and Memphis fame, had moved to greater Los Angeles by the early 1970s, met Withers when the songwriter showed up at his home one day in Malibu, sent there by businessman Clarence Avant, who had arranged the sale of Stax Records.
“I looked out the window, and up walked a man who looked like he had everything but his lunch pail with him. Big brogan shoes and overalls, with a smile and a short Afro. He brought his guitar, and had a big, thick, worn notebook,” Jones writes in his 2019 autobiography, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note.
Withers sat down on Jones’ couch, “and even before hitting a chord, Bill patted his foot on the carpet for the beat and sang: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone—It’s not warm when she’s away.”
“Bill had hardly gone into the second verse before I got up and went into the next room, my studio, and started making phone calls,” Jones continued.
For his next act, Withers started singing “Grandma’s Hands.” Jones wrote that he immediately called Steve Cropper from the M.G.s, who was unavailable, and then called Stephen Stills to play guitar.
Before long, they were in the studio with Withers with the other former MGs. “Al Jackson and 'Duck' Dunn flew in from Memphis, and I picked them up at the Hyatt on Sunset on my way from Malibu,” Jones wrote. They met Stephen Stills at Conway Studio in Hollywood, along with Withers—who was donned the same attire he wore that day to Jones’ home.
Bill Halverson was the sound engineer on the session and found an old wooden crate, which Withers stomped on during “Ain’t No Sunshine.” When Withers started repeating “I know, I know, I know…,” during the song’s incredible breakdown, Jones writes that it was because he didn’t have any more to add. Jones insisted he leave it in the song.
Jones then flew to Memphis and added a low-budget string session at Ardent Studios, with Noel Gilbert and engineer Terry Manning. This was all for Withers’ 1971 debut album, Just As I Am.
Some of my Bill Withers favorites?
There’s the ubiquitous “Lean On Me,” inspired by the people back in Slab Fork. This classic surely has been a soundtrack and moment of hope in many of our lives. In 1987, Club Noveau resurrected it, hitting No. 1 and bringing new popularity to the song. Of course, the song became the title of the 1989 film in which Morgan Freeman portrayed fierce Paterson, N.J., high school principal Joe White.
As brilliant and simple as “Lean On Me” remains, my ultimate favorites of Withers are the super-funky “Use Me,” the perfect “Ain’t No Sunshine” (originally a B-side that won Grammys for best pop song and best R&B song), and the folksy, touching “Grandma’s Hands.”
Withers’ minor 1975 R&B hit “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” would be covered by Diana Ross, and more recently by Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm on their excellent 2017 album recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis (Cray’s version is actually how I learned the song).
And of course, there’s the upbeat “Lovely Day,” which several writers have pointed out features Withers holding one note for about 19 seconds.
In 2015, Withers was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
We need your sunshine right now, man, but you’re gone. Your songs and your light remain.