BILL WITHERS was one of America’s premier singer/songwriters. Combining soulful warmth, a folksy, genuine feel, and an immediately recognizable voice, Withers sung his way into the hearts of millions. He had an uncanny ability to say with profound honesty and great sensitivity, what so many of us feel in our hearts but are unable to express in words.
His songs speak for themselves. “Lean On Me” was performed at both President Obama’s and Clinton’s Inaugurations. In Apple TV+’s new series The Crowded Room, “Lovely Day” leads Billboard’s Top TV Songs chart, for June 2023. Commercial uses, including the Gap Khaki Soul campaign featuring “Lovely Day,” match the music to new markets. Alt-J did a much talked about cover of Withers' “Lovely Day” in 2014;” Willie Nelson and Mavis Staples’ duet of “Grandma’s Hands” is a striking rendition on his latest release To All The Girls; and a newly-penned song “I Am My Father’s Son” was performed by Johnny Mathis at the unveiling of the Bill Russell Legacy Project.
His music and lyrics have a universal appeal, simple yet sophisticated. Bill attributed this to his own universality – as he describes it, a rural childhood and an urban-international adulthood. Born in Slabfork, West Virginia, the youngest of six children in a small coal-mining town, Withers' father, a miner, died when Withers was 13. At 17, enlistment in the Navy was Bill’s ticket out.
During a nine year term in the Navy, which carried him throughout the Far East, Withers was inspired to try his hand at singing. Songwriting came as a result of futile searches for original songs that expressed what he felt. After his discharge from the Navy, he moved to Los Angeles and recorded demos in hopes of landing a recording contract.
In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, Booker T. Jones produced Bill’s debut album Just As I Am with the Grammy-winning “Ain't No Sunshine” and the much-loved "Grandma's Hands." The second album, Still Bill, lauded as “a stone-soul masterpiece” by Rolling Stone magazine, delivered “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” Later would come the striking “Lovely Day” and Grammy winning “Just The Two Of Us.” Bill recorded nine albums and in 1987 received his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the cover of the 1972 hit “Lean On Me” by Club Nouveau. The song has quietly over the years become a part of the American fabric and in 2007 was enshrined into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
An encompassing roster of artists that includes Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Maroon 5, Linda Ronstadt, Paul McCartney, Sting, Jimmy Buffet and Diana Ross have covered Bill’s songs. Additionally, samples utilized by hit makers like Jay-Z, Akon, Kayne West, Tupac Shakur, Fatboy Slim and Rick Ross have powered innumerable hip-hop hits. Feature films like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Jerry Maguire, Jackie Brown, Notting Hill, The Bodyguard, American Beauty and The Secret Life of Pets have utilized Withers’ songs to dramatic effect. On network and cable television, the songs have graced shows like Six Feet Under, Entourage, Dancing With The Stars, American Idol, CSI, The Simpsons and BULL.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, Withers was presented the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award in 2006 given to members who have had a major impact on the legacy of Rhythm and Soul music. Additional honors include multiple Million-aires citations from Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and a Clio Award. The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection, representing Withers' nine full-length albums, received a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Historical Recording. In 2015, Withers was honored by being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder and John Legend. Later in 2015, artists including Ed Sheeran, Aloe Blacc, Michael McDonald, Valerie Simpson and Dr. John to name a few, gathered at Carnegie Hall to recreate Bill’s celebrated 1973 album, Live at Carnegie Hall.
As resounding as these honors might be, they are eclipsed by the eloquence of spirit that defines the songs. 52 years since his debut, Bill Withers’ songs echo as vibrant touchstones in the American musical experience. For Bill it is quite simply stated, “I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.”
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