The singer and songwriter Bill Withers liked to describe himself as a “regular guy.” Many stars want us to believe that they are relatable because they are somehow just like us, but this wasn’t what he meant. When Withers more or less walked away from the music business, in the eighties, it was because he never felt entitled to the spoils of fame. His songs were intimate and deeply observed, as though he took the world around him—from the aches and swells of his grandma’s hands to the itinerant wanderings of an anonymous railroad man to the sorrows of a returning Vietnam veteran—more seriously than he ever took himself.
Withers passed away on Friday, at the age of eighty-one, owing to heart complications. He was born in a small, coal-mining town called Slab Fork, West Virginia, on the Fourth of July, 1938, the youngest of six children. He often described himself as a quiet and reserved boy, and it was easy to still pick up traces of his low-key modesty, even once he became a star. But, when he was a child, it never seemed like performance was in his cards. Withers was dogged by a stutter that remained well into his late teens. He joined the Navy at the age of seventeen, and became interested in performing music. He served for nine years. In 1967, he moved to Los Angeles. He could work in aeronautics and pursue a musical career on the side. He was twenty-nine.
Withers sounded effortless when he sang, shorn of theatrical straining, no extra huffs and puffs. By the time he released his breakthrough hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he was in his thirties and not entirely convinced that music would be as secure a career path as working on an assembly line. He was wrong. In 1971, he released his début album, “Just as I Am,” which featured the gorgeous, folky “Grandma’s Hands.” Over the next few years, he released a string of classics that bridged the chasms between bluesy, forlorn soul, smoothed-out, wiggly funk, and the suaveness of disco. He continued to just sound like himself.
My favorite Withers album is “Live at Carnegie Hall,” from 1973, one of the greatest concert recordings ever made. It’s not just the performances, which are marvelous; it’s the way that Withers talks as he introduces the songs, leading you slowly into their scenarios and entanglements. Every song offers a chance to recognize something deeper about the bonds between us. “I think about young guys who were like I was when I was young,” he says at the beginning of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” his band chanting and playing behind him. He remembers seeing a young veteran who had lost his right arm in Vietnam, and asking how he was doing. “I tried to put myself in his position. Maybe he cried. Maybe he said”—and at this point he begins singing—“I can’t write left-handed / Would you please write a letter to my mother?”
We mourn Withers for eternally uplifting, wedding-ready songs, such as “Lean on Me” or “Lovely Day,.” But the effortlessness of his voice rarely matched the content of the songs themselves. Love and friendship are harder to achieve than a sweet harmony, a rhyme delivered with some casual, husky warmth. He was never afraid to be the loser—the one who is spent up and tossed aside in “Use Me,” the lover spurned in “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?” “Make a smile for me,” he sings on a gorgeous tune from 1974. “Lately I’ve been so lonely / And a smile from you / Might make these blues go away.” He’s reaching out from the darkness, yet he sounds so calm and peaceful, dissolving into ripples of electric piano and gentle strums. A smile isn’t too much to ask for, yet he knows better than to expect it simply because he’s asking.
Withers walked away from stardom disillusioned with the marketing and expectations surrounding black music. He was, after all, just a regular guy—and content in being one. Not that he was forgotten. Musical history is as much about what you made as it is about what other people did with your creations. And it was a tribute to Withers’s songs that later generations kept bringing him back. You hear Withers’s restraint in D’Angelo and Anthony Hamilton, his storytelling detail throughout all of nineties hip-hop. The opening moans of “Grandma’s Hands” became Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” I am of the demographic and regional ethos that hears “Lovely Day” as The Whole Damn Yay’s “Player’s Holiday.” In 2009, Withers was the subject of “Still Bill,” a documentary about his career and post-retirement life. He kept a fairly low profile throughout the past few decades, occasionally resurfacing for interviews, where he was clearly no longer interested in music-business hagiography, and to share his concerns over the direction of national politics.
“If I get to heaven I’ll look for / Grandma’s hands,” Withers sang in the early seventies. It’s impossible to listen to this song and not think of one’s own roots, the hands that showed us the way.
There was nothing desperate about Withers, even if he often sounded lonely or melancholy. He moved to his own rhythm, and he was there if you needed him, ready to love you. It was in the way he paced his words, ambling into his verses, unhurried. You just had to catch up, or slow down. “Just the two of us,” he sings on his lush 1980 hit, “we can make it if we try.” That work ethic never left him. You just have to be willing to try.