Friday, April 3, 2020

Godspeed Bill Withers

Bill Withers, the singer-songwriter who produced such classic songs s "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Just the Two of Us," died March 30 2020 at the age of 81. The cause was heart complications.

Bill Withers was born on July 4 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a small coal mining town. He grew up in nearby Beckley, West Virginia. His father died when he was only 13 years old. Mr. Withers enlisted in the United States Navy when he was 17. He served for nine years as an Aviation Boatswain's Mate. It was while he was serving in the Navy that he became interested in singing and songwriting.

Following his service in the Navy he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. He worked in factories for various companies, among them Douglas Aircraft Corporation,  performing at clubs at night. During this same period he made various demo tapes. One of these demo tapes found its way to Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records. Mr. Avant signed Bill Withers to Sussex Records.

His first album, Just As I Am, was released in 1971. While the first single from the album, "Harlem," failed to chart, the second single, "Ain't No Sunshine," proved to be a hit. It went to no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart. The third single, "Grandma's Hands," also performed well. While it went to only no. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100, it went to no. 18 on the Billboard  R&B chart.

The biggest hit of Bill Withers's career would come from his second album, Still Bill. "Lean on Me" was the first single from the album. It went to no. 1 on  both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts. The second single from the album, "Use Me," also did well. It went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart.

In 1973 the live album Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall was released. It was followed by his final album on Sussex Records, +'Justments. It was also during this period that he wrote and produced the songs "Better You Go Your Way" and "Tenderness is His Way" for the Gladys Knight & the Pips album I Feel a Song.

After Sussex Records folded, Mr. Withers signed with Columbia Records. His first album with Columbia Records, Making Music, was released in 1975. It was followed by the album Naked & Warm. Bill Withers's third album on Columbia Records, Menagerie, produced the minor hit "Lovely Day." "Lovely Day" went to no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart. Menagerie  was followed by the album 'Bout Love in 1979.

Bill Withers's next major hit would be a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., and appeared on Mr. Washington's 1980 album Winelight. "Just the Two of Us" reached no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 3 on the Billboard singles chart. He also collaborated on "Soul Shadows" with The Crusaders and In the Name of Love" with Ralph MacDonald.  Despite the success of "Just the Two Of Us," Bill Withers would record only one more studio album. Watching You Watching Me was released in 1985. "Oh Yeah," a single from that album, reached no. 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Bill Withers elected not to renew his contract with Columbia Records due to disagreements with the label. He then effectively retired from his music career.

Bill Withers was unlike any other music artist of his era. Whether it was because he grew up in a small town or because he started his musical career later than most, his songs were always grounded in reality and addressed the concerns of ordinary adults. "Lean on Me" was about having a sense of community. "Grandma's Hands" was simply about his grandmother. Bill Withers's songs displayed a maturity sometimes lacking in popular music of the Seventies. Of course, what made his music even better was his voice soulful and genuine. It was a voice that could relay both comfort and warmth. Between his talent and maturity as a songwriter and his remarkable voice, Bill Withers remains one of the greatest singers and songwriters in the history of American popular music.

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