Bill Withers (1938-2020)

Bill Withers, 1976
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Singer and musician William Harrison Withers Jr., known to the world as Bill Withers, was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, on July 4, 1938, to William and Mattie (Galloway) Withers. Born with a stutter, Withers had a difficult time fitting in. His father, a coal miner, died when he was thirteen, leaving his mother to support them as a maid. After he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1958, he overcame his stutter and became interested in songwriting and singing. After nine years in the service, he moved to Berkeley, California, and began creating music in 1967.

Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records, a newly formed R&B label in Los Angeles, signed Withers in 1969, and he recorded his first studio album in 1970 titled Just as I Am. The debut album featured the tracks “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands,” which peaked on the R&B charts at No. 3 and No. 18, respectively. With the success of his first album, Withers began touring with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band from Los Angeles. Withers won a Grammy Award in 1971 for his song “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which sold over a million copies by that point.

In 1972, Withers released his second album, Still Bill, which featured “Lean on Me.” The song went to No. 1 on the Pop and R&B charts, and the album would eventually sell three million copies. Withers said the song was inspired by his recollection of his West Virginia hometown, Slab Fork because people in this impoverished community often had to depend on one another. Another song on the album, “Use Me,” achieved gold status and reached No. 2 on the R&B charts.

A legal dispute in 1975 ended Withers’s relationship with Sussex Records, and he quickly signed with Columbia Records. He had initial success with the new label with three albums in the late 1970s: Making Music (1975), Menagerie (1977), and Bout Love (1978). Withers had many popular songs on these albums, most notably “Lovely Day,” which reached No. 6 on the R&B charts. Withers continued to deliver talented music when he teamed briefly with Elektra Records in 1981. “Just the Two of Us,” released shortly afterward, rose to No. 2 on the pop charts and No. 3 on the R&B charts.

By 1985, Withers had left Columbia Records and had accumulated three Grammy Awards and nine nominations. Withers retired from performing and recording that year, citing, in part, exploitation by the Columbia label. Withers, who signed to his first label at the relatively late age of 31, walked away from the business 16 years later at 47.

In 2014, Withers received the Best Historical Grammy Award for a collection of his eight studio albums produced by Sussex and Columbia Records. The following year he was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. A tribute concert at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 2015, featuring Ed Sheeran, Aloe Blacc, and Anthony Hamilton, recreated the concert Withers had given there in 1973.

Withers’ personal life included two wives: his first, actress Denise Nicholas, whom he married in 1973 and divorced shortly after that, and Marcia Johnson, whom he married in 1976. His wife, Marcia, also served as his manager.  The couple had two children, Toddy and Kori.

Withers died from heart complications on March 30, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. He is survived by his wife and two children.