It is clear when listening to the timeless catalog of Bill Withers that he was a poet first and a musician second.
Withers, who penned and soulfully crooned such classics as “Lovely Day,” “Lean On Me” and “Just The Two of Us” passed away on Monday, March 31 of heart-related illness. He was 81.
“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 family said in a statement announcing Withers’ passing. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world.”
He wasn’t a vocal powerhouse, but his steady and soothing tone made it easier to tune into the most delicious part of his music – his way with words.
With his music he transported listeners straight to the apex of a compelling story. In “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” he details the horrors of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a wounded soldier. Once excited about the prospect of battle, the soldier must ask for help writing home after being shot in the shoulder.
He spoke unapologetically about being caught up in an unreciprocated relationship in “Use Me,” and the power of a mutually adoring partnership in “Lovely Day.” His “Grandma’s Hands” spoke to the healing wisdom of his family matriarch that anyone with a loving, God-fearing grandmother can connect with.
His biggest hit “Lean On Me,” was a rarity in that it is a ballad that speaks to the comfort and need for platonic love.
Withers wrote the now iconic hit to soothe his own loneliness while longing for the comfort of his home community of the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia while living in Los Angeles.
William Harrison Withers Jr. was born on Independence Day 1938 in Slab Fork. He was the youngest of six children born to coal miner William Withers and domestic worker Mattie Withers.
At 17, he joined the Navy and served for nine years, where he received training as an aircraft mechanic. After his discharge, he settled in Los Angeles and earned a living working at aircraft assembly plants.
He bought a guitar from a pawn shop and spent his own money recording demos in the effort to land a record deal.
He signed to Sussex Records in 1971 and released his debut album “Just As I Am,” which included the classics “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.” His follow up album “Still Bill,” which included “Lean On Me,” “Use Me” and “Who is He (And What Is He to You).”
He went on to record eight studio albums and a live album before walking away from making new music altogether in 1985.
“I became very interested [in the question], can I still stay in this business and be effective and make a living, and not have to play this fame game? I wasn't any good at it. The fame game was kickin’ my [expletive],” Withers said in the documentary “Still Bill,” which premiered in 2009 at South by Southwest Film Festival.
Two years after he stopped recording music, the Club Nouveau remake of his hit “Lean On Me” earned him another Grammy.
He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder in 2015 – and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.
“We’ve got to show a lot of love to Bill’s wife and children and keep the legacy of what he left behind going ever strong,” Wonder told Billboard.com. He revealed that Withers had reached out to him just weeks prior to his passing about recording new music together. “I think every artist, at some point, should record one of his songs on their projects.”
His music has been covered by some of the biggest names in music – and featured in countless films, including “The Hangover,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Crooklyn” and “Flight.”
His song “Lean On Me” has seen a surge in popularity as individuals have sought out inspiration, optimism and a sense of solidarity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones,” Withers’ family said.
He is survived by his wife, Marcia and his children, Todd and Kori.