In Memoriam: Bill Withers (1938-2020)

Jake May on April 3, 2020
In Memoriam: Bill Withers (1938-2020)

Photo via Withers’ Facebook page.

Bill Withers, the celebrated soul singer responsible for classics such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Lovely Day,” passed away on Monday from heart complications, his family said in a statement to The Associated Press. He was 81 years old.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. 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,” read a statement from the Withers family. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

Withers was born in Slab Fork, W. Va. in 1938. As a child, he suffered from a stutter; he eventually overcame the impediment during his nine years in the United States Navy, in which he enlisted at 18 years old. It was during this time that he became interested in singing and writing songs.

In 1971, Withers released Just As I Am on Sussex Records, which included the song “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He would go on to win the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for the track. A year later, in 1972, Withers released Still Bill, the first single for which was number one hit “Lean On Me.” The second single, “Use Me,” was also a massive hit and marked Withers’ third single to sell at least one million copies (the other being “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”).

In 1975, Withers moved over to Columbia Records, on which he released his 1977 album Menagerie, containing the classic track “Lovely Day.” In 1985, Withers released his final record with Columbia, Watching You Watching Me, amid disputes with the record company. This record marked his departure from Columbia.

Over the course of his storied career, Withers collaborated with artists such as Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Crusaders and Ralph McDonald, as well as saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., with which he made the hit song “Just the Two of Us.”

In 2015, Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. “This is about a great man who has written some incredibly great songs,” Wonder said in his speech inducting Withers. “I think what determines a great songwriter and a singer… is when they are able to let you feel in the very word – every word they sing and express – that that you can relate to.”

“You see, I’ve always felt that Bill Withers’ songs were songs that were for every single culture there is,” Wonder continued. “Everyone can relate somewhere in the world to the greatness of those songs. In everything that I hear in the songs that he sings and writes, I’m so very excited and honored – I say, ‘I wish I could’ve written that song.'”