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Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away

In 1970 the singer was a guy in his thirties with a job and a lunch pail. Then he wrote ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ and things got complicated.

On a clear day, you can see the Staples Center from Bill Withers’ house, which sits high in the hills above West Hollywood. Today, in about two hours, the Los Angeles basketball arena will host the Grammy Awards; every once in a while, a limo will rush through Withers’ neighborhood, on its way to the event. But the 76-year-old Withers could not be less interested. He’s padding around his home wearing Adidas track pants, an old T-shirt with a drawing of a bus on it, and athletic sandals with blue socks. On the mantel in a hallway, there is a Best R&B Song award, for 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” from the last time he attended the show, three decades ago; it sits next to two other Grammys, for 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and 1972’s “Lean on Me.” A few years after “Two of Us,” Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back. “These days,” he says, “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”

As the Grammy telecast begins, and AC/DC kick off the show, Withers jumps into his Lexus SUV and heads down to his favorite restaurant, Le Petit Four; he has a hankering for liver and onions but settles for the blackened catfish. The hostess knows him by name, but otherwise he blends into the crowd. “I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson,” he says, still musing on the Grammys. “It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”

Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’ ”

Others don’t believe he is who he says: “One Sunday morning I was at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. These church ladies were sitting in the booth next to mine. They were talking about this Bill Withers song they sang in church that morning. I got up on my elbow, leaned into their booth and said, ‘Ladies, it’s odd you should mention that because I’m Bill Withers.’ This lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You’re too light-skinned to be Bill Withers!’ ”

His career lasted eight years by his own count; in that time, he wrote and recorded some of the most loved, most covered songs of all time, particularly “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” — tunes that feature dead-simple, soulful instrumentation and pure melodies that haven’t aged a second. “He’s the last African-American Everyman,” says Questlove. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

Withers was stunned when he learned he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. “I see it as an award of attrition,” he says. “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”

Withers’ hometown is in a poor rural area in one of the poorest states in the Union. His father, who worked in the coal mines, died when Bill was 13. “We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhood,” he says. “I heard guys playing country music, and in church I heard gospel. There was music everywhere.”

The youngest of six children, Withers was born with a stutter and had a hard time fitting in. “When you stutter, people have a tendency to disregard you,” he says. That was compounded by the unvarnished Jim Crow racism that was a way of life in his youth. “One of the first things I learned, when I was around four, was that if you make a mistake and go into a white women’s bathroom, they’re going to kill your father.” He was a teenager when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was beaten to death by two men who were cleared of all charges by an all-white jury. “[Till] was right around my age,” says Withers. “I thought, ‘Didn’t he know better?’ ”

Desperate to get out of Slab Fork, he enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1956. Harry Truman had desegregated the armed forces eight years earlier, but Withers quickly discovered that didn’t mean much at his first naval base, in Pensacola, Florida. “My first goal was, I didn’t want to be a cook or a steward,” he says. “So I went to aircraft-mechanic school. I still had to prove to people that thought I was genetically inferior that I wasn’t too stupid to drain the oil out of an airplane.”

By the time he was transferred to California in the mid-1960s, he realized he’d never have the courage to quit the Navy if he couldn’t rid himself of his stutter. “I couldn’t get out a word,” he says. “I realized it wasn’t physical. I figured out that my stutter — and this isn’t the case for everyone — was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did of myself. I started doing things like imagining everybody naked — all kinds of tricks I used on myself.”

Against all conventional wisdom, it worked (though he still trips over the occasional word), and in 1965 he quit the Navy and became “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California.” He eventually took a job at an aircraft parts factory. As a Navy aircraft mechanic, he was ridiculously overqualified, but “it was all about survival.”

One night around that time, he visited a club in Oakland where Lou Rawls was playing. “He was late, and the manager was pacing back and forth,” says Withers. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t show up on time.’ I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting. Then Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.”

Withers was in his late twenties. His music-business experience consisted of sitting in a couple of times with a bar band while stationed in Guam in the Navy. He’d never played the guitar, but he headed to a pawn shop, bought a cheap one and began teaching himself to play. Between shifts at the factory, he began writing his own tunes. “I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he says.

He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough to record a crude demo. Withers shopped it around to major labels, which weren’t interested, but then he got a meeting with Clarence Avant, a black music executive who had recently founded the indie label Sussex and had just signed the songwriter Rodriguez (of Searching for Sugar Man fame). “[Withers’] songs were unbelievable,” Avant remembers. “You just had to listen to his lyrics. I gave him a deal and set him up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album.” 

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Bill Withers in a recording studio circa 1972. MIchael Ochs Archives/Getty

Jones, the famous Stax keyboardist, went through his Rolodex and hired the cream of the Los Angeles scene: drummer Jim Keltner, MGs bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, Stephen Stills on guitar. “Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” says Jones. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”

Withers was extremely uneasy until Graham Nash walked into the studio. “He sat down in front of me and said, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ ” Withers says. “I’ll never forget it.” They laid down the basic tracks for what became 1971’s Just As I Am in a few days. (One of the songs was inspired by the 1962 Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick movie Days of Wine and Roses; Withers was watching it on TV, and the doomed relationship at the film’s center brought to mind a phrase: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”)

The album’s cover photo was taken during Withers’ lunch break at the factory; you can see him holding his lunch pail. “My co-workers were making fun of me,” he says. “They thought it was a joke.” Still unconvinced that music would pay off, he held on to his day job until he was laid off in the months before the album’s release. Then, one day, “two letters came in the mail. One was asking me to come back to my job. The other was inviting me on to Johnny Carson.” The Tonight Show appearance, in November 1971, helped propel “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the Top 10, and the follow-up, “Grandma’s Hands,” reached Number 42.

By then, Withers was 32; he still marvels at the fact that he was able to come out of nowhere at that relatively advanced age. “Imagine 40,000 people at a stadium watching a football game,” he says. “About 10,000 of them think they can play quarterback. Three of them probably could. I guess I was one of those three.”

He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. One of the first things he came up with was a simple chord progression: “I didn’t change fingers. I just went one, two, three, four, up and down the piano. It was the first thing I learned to play. Even a tiny child can play that.”

Tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship called “Lean on Me.” Withers didn’t think much of it. “But the guys at the record company thought it was a single,” he says. It became the centerpiece of his second album, 1972’s Still Bill. The song rocketed to Number One and was inescapable for the entire year.

Withers was now a hot commodity, appearing on Soul Train and the BBC, and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall that was released as a live album. But he refused to hire a manager, insisting on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs to writing the liner notes to designing his album covers. “He was so opinionated,” says Avant. “I was the closest thing he had to a manager. Everybody was scared of him.”

“Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema,” says Withers. “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”

In 1973, Withers married Denise Nicholas, a star of the TV show Room 222. It was a rocky relationship from the start. “Their wedding day was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Avant says. “I remember her semi-crying. She said, ‘He doesn’t love me.’ I said, ‘Bill, what are you doing getting married?’ He said, ‘I want everyone back home to know I’m marrying one of these Hollywood actresses.’ ” Withers and Nicholas had terrible fights, which soon began getting coverage in magazines like Jet; the couple split after little more than a year. Withers poured all of his pain from the breakup into his 1974 LP +’Justments. “It was like a diary,” says Questlove. “That album was a pre-reality-show look at his life. Keep in mind this was years before Marvin Gaye did it with Here, My Dear.

Withers was also unhappy on the road. Despite having enormous radio hits, he found himself opening up for incongruous acts like Jethro Tull and making less money than he felt he deserved. Things got worse when Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period,’ ” says Withers. “I am proud of myself because I did not hit him. I met another executive who was looking at a photo of the Four Tops in a magazine. He actually said to me, ‘Look at these ugly niggers.’ ”

At Sussex, he had complete creative control over his music, but at Columbia he found himself in the middle of a large corporation that was second-guessing his moves. As he relives this part of his past, he gets teary. “There were no black executives,” he says. “They’d say shit to me like, ‘Why are there no horns on the song?’ ‘Why is this intro so long?’ . . . This one guy at Columbia, Mickey Eichner, was a huge pain in the ass,” he adds. “He told me to cover Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto.’ I’m a songwriter! That would be like buying a bartender a drink.”

Eichner, who was the head of Columbia’s A&R department, says he’s “hurt” by Withers’ words, and he has a different recollection of events. “He submitted a rec-ord, and we didn’t hear a single,” he says. “I suggested he maybe do an Elvis cover. He’s very stubborn. I believe that a manager would have understood what I was trying to do, but he didn’t have one, so there was nobody I could reason with.” As far as racism at Columbia, Eichner says he doesn’t recall “hearing or seeing anything.”

With the exception of 1977’s Menagerie (which contains the funky classic “Lovely Day”), none of the Columbia albums reached the Top 40. Withers’ 1980 hit “Just the Two of Us” was a duet with Grover Washington Jr. on Elektra – “That was a ‘kiss my ass’ song to Columbia,” says Withers. The low point came during the sessions for his last album, 1985’sWatching You Watching Me. “They made me record that album at some guy’s home studio,” he says. “This stark-naked five-year-old girl was running around the house, and they said to her, ‘We’re busy. Go play with Bill.’ Now, I’m this big black guy and they’re sending a little naked white girl over to play with me! I said, ‘I gotta get out of here. I can’t take this shit!’ ”

Withers hasn’t released a note of music since then, aside from a guest spot on a 2004 Jimmy Buffett song; he has not performed publicly in concert in nearly 25 years. Right now he’s sitting at his kitchen table reading a political blog on his iPad, as CNN runs quietly on a nearby TV. He watches a lot of television, and he especially loves Mike & Molly, The Big Bang Theory and the MSNBC prison documentary series Lockup. “I really have no idea what he does all day,” says his wife, Marcia. “But he does a lot on his iPad. He always knows exactly what’s going on in the world. Whenever I mention anything, he says, ‘Oh, that’s old news.’ ”

Marcia, who met Withers in 1976, runs his publishing company from a tiny office on Sunset Boulevard. “We’re a mom-and-pop shop,” he says. “She’s my only overseer. I’m lucky I married a woman with an MBA.” Since Withers was the sole writer of most of his material, he gets half of every dollar his catalog generates – and “Lean on Me” alone has appeared in innumerable TV shows, movies and commercials. Any licensee that wants to use Withers’ master version of one of his songs needs his approval. “If it’s for a scene in a show where somebody is killed or something, we will turn them down,” says Marcia. “We don’t want people to associate, say, ‘Lean on Me’ with violence.” Technically, it’s possible to license a cover of one of his songs without his consent. “But that’s never happened,” he says. “They don’t want to piss me off.”

Bill and Marcia have invested wisely in L.A. real estate. For the past 17 years, they’ve lived in their 5,000-square-foot house, which has three stories and an elevator and is furnished with pricey-looking African art; they bought the home for $700,000 in 1998, and it’s now worth many times that. It’s crammed with books and mementos from Withers’ career, including a 1974 photo of him with Muhammad Ali. There’s an exercise room on the third floor with several machines, which all look brand-new.

Their children, Todd and Kori, are both in their thirties and live nearby. Bill was an active father after he left the music biz, and he’s very close to them. “We’d have James Brown dance parties in our pajamas,” says Kori, “and take cross-country road trips, blasting Chuck Berry songs the whole time.” Withers also occupied himself with construction projects at his investment properties. (“When I moved to New York for college, he built a wall in the middle of my apartment with a door on it,” says Kori. “He’s always building something.”) 

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Kori Withers and Bill Withers perform at the 36th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in 2005. L. Busacca/Getty

The Withers house also has a recording studio, but Bill has little interest in making new music. “I need a motivator or something to goose me up,” he says. “They need to come out with a Viagra-like pill for folks my age to regenerate that need to show off. But back where I’m from, people sit on their porch all day.”

He’s turned down more offers for comeback tours than he can count. “What else do I need to buy?” he says. “I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, man, who treats me like gold. I don’t deserve her. My wife dotes on me. I’m very pleased with my life how it is. This business came to me in my thirties. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”

He hasn’t ruled out a performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April, though. “There are things that will decide that for me,” he says, mysteriously. Says Marcia, “I know he doesn’t like how older people sound when they sing. I don’t push him. People say that I enable him, but he’s just over it. “

In the meantime, Questlove is determined to get him back to work. “I started my campaign to produce a Bill Withers album back in 2004,” he says. “My first audition was to produce an Al Green album. I figured Bill would see it, love it and agree to record with me. He said, ‘Nope, I’m fine. I don’t want to sing.’ So I made an album with his friend Booker T. Jones, but same thing. Finally I recorded Withers’ ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’ with John Legend. He still said, ‘Nope.’ ”

The Legend-Roots album with “Left Handed” won three Grammys, but Withers was unimpressed. “I won’t give up,” says Questlove. “He’s my hero.”

Originally featured in issue #762 (May, 2015)