Just this past Saturday, HBO aired the 2015 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony which was held on
April 18th. There was a good lineup of inductees this year, with only one of them reminding me
of why the Hall of Fame is such a bullshit institution. But rather than bitch and moan, I was thrilled
to see my favorite singer, Bill Withers, get the recognition he rightfully deserves.
To many in my generation he’s probably not well known. Sure, everyone has heard the radio
mainstays, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Use Me,” but I’d like
to explore some of my lesser known favorites from this unique singer and songwriter. First, let’s get
familiar with the man, himself.
Bill Withers was born in 1938 in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and raised in a nearby
town called Beckley. He was the youngest of six children in a poor family that lost their father when
Bill was 13. At 18 he joined the Navy where he spent 9 years before moving to LA and finding a good job
installing toilets in airplanes. By the time Withers hit his early 30’s – and with no musical history
to speak of – he had the pretty nutty idea to try out a music career.
He said he began writing songs because while listening to the radio, “I couldn’t find any songs that didn’t sound like all the others.” Withers recorded songs, played the clubs, and was soon discovered by Clarence Avant of Sussex Records who offered him a recording contract. Not bad for a guy who stuttered well into adulthood.
While working with Booker T. Jones, Bill Withers released his debut album, Just As I Am in 1971, with the hugely successful single, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Despite the song’s popularity, Withers kept his job installing toilets in 747s because he felt the music industry was a “fickle business.” A year later, he had the biggest hit
of his career, “Lean On Me,” off his second album, Still Bill.
Withers didn’t care for fame or the music industry. It left him cold and uncomfortable. Several incidents,
such as a having record exec insultingly suggest he cover Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” and having to lip sync for television programs, left him disgruntled and he soon grew apart from the business that made him a star.
After 15 years, 8 albums (2 of them certified gold), 3 Grammys, and an NAACP Image Award, Bill had had enough and called it quits. His attention turned to his family after the birth of his children and having “fun doing other things.”
There are many reasons why Bill Withers is my favorite solo performer. There is something in his voice
that I find moving, haunting even. He sounds like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders,
who has known pain like no other, and accepts love, loss, happiness, and sadness all the same. What is
surprising is that Bill is actually a very funny, lovable, and jovial guy. Also, you’ll seldom find anyone nearly as humble.
The songs of Bill Withers are also some of the most honest pieces of music I have ever heard. There is
a bluntness to his lyrics that was rare back in the early 70’s. He doesn’t often get sappy, but rather sings of love with the honest emotions of a man as I personally recognize it. “Who Is He (And What Is He To You),” tells the story of a man who notices an all-too uncomfortable exchange of glances between his woman and a strange man. Then there’s “Better Off Dead,” a self-loathing tune about an alcoholic who ruined his family with his drinking. The song even ends with a gunshot! And what would 1970’s soul music be without a song like, “Harlem,” which tackles life in the inner city, for better or for worse.
So before we get to the music, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Bill Withers:
“One of the things I always tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right. When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.”
Who Is He (And What Is He To You)
This is a special song, right here. How many songs about Grandma have you heard in your life? I’m sure not many, if at all. This is a fantastic live rendition of the song, which starts around 2:20 minute mark after a very funny and loving talk about his grandmother that I suggest you listen to. Whenever I hear this song it automatically has me missing my grandmother, and realizing that she was truly the first, and best friend that I ever had. This one is for you, Ba. I love you.
World Keeps Going Round and Round
I featured this song in my first installment of The Soul Hole because it’s my favorite song. That is all.
Better Off Dead
Lonely Town, Lonely Street
I Don’t Want You On My Mind
The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
Sure, this is a big radio song, but it’s just so goddamn good. This version is from Live At Carnegie Hall, and it’s eight plus minutes of nasty, grooving soul about a man being used by a woman for his money, which is fine by him since he’s using her for the sex. This is how it’s done.
I hope you enjoyed my tribute to one of the greatest artists of all-time, Bill Withers. I HIGHLY suggest you check out the 2009 documentary, Still Bill. It’s an intimate and entertaining look at the man’s career as well as where he is and what he’s doing in life these days.