“When you have a talent you know it when you’re five years old– it’s just getting around to it.” ~B.W.
Slab Fork, West Virginia, a town of about 200 residents, was Bill’s place of birth. The youngest of six children, he was raised in nearby Beckley, in coal mining country. Withers’ father, a miner, died when Withers was 13. At 17, enlistment in the Navy was Bill’s ticket out.
Withers arrived in Los Angeles in 1967. His self-financed demos on which Watts 103rd Street Band member Ray Jackson served as arranger and keyboardist, led Jackson to introduce him to Forrest Hamilton. Hamilton then introduced Withers to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records who tapped Booker T. Jones to produce Bill’s debut album. This resulted in the album Just As I Am with the Grammy-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the much-loved “Grandma’s Hands.” The pragmatic Withers — who was now able to leave his straight gig at an aircraft company — subsequently assembled the remaining members of the Watts 103rd Street Band for U.S. and international tours.
The second album, Still Bill, lauded as “a stone-soul masterpiece” by Rolling Stone magazine, delivered soon-to-be standards “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall followed. After the release of +’Justments in 1974, Withers severed ties with Sussex to sign with Columbia (who subsequently re-released his back catalog.) 1975’s Making Music, Making Friends showcased more classics, “Hello Like Before” and “Make Love to Your Mind”; 1976’s Naked & Warm, with the idyllic love song to his adopted home, “City of the Angels”; 1977’s Menagerie, with the much-covered “Lovely Day” and 1979’s ‘Bout Love, and the single “Don’t It Make It Better,” a top 30 R&B single, continued the run of top-charting releases.
“Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. was a career pinnacle, garnering four Grammy nominations with Withers accepting the award for Best R&B Song.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, Bill Withers was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2006 with the Society’s Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award, presented to ASCAP 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); a Soul Train Hall of Fame award; two NAACP Image awards, induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and a Clio award. In 2007, “Lean On Me” was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
As resounding as these honors might be, they are eclipsed by the eloquence of spirit that defines the songs. While he prefers a life far removed from the hype and the hoopla, in the collective consciousness of popular music, the sound and the songs of Bill Withers are ever present, echoing as vibrant touchstones in the American musical experience.
“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.”