Cardiovascular disease claimed the R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers on March 30. He was 81.
Of the 29 singles that Withers released between 1967 and 1985, only six reached the Top 40. Four of those, however—“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Use Me,” and “Just the Two of Us”—left such an impression that even now their opening bars fan emotional flames.
His gritty tenor voice cut across genres. But by most other pop-music metrics Withers made an unlikely star. Born in Slab Fork, W.Va. (population: 202), he’d already served nine years in the Navy and worked for IBM and McDonnell Douglas before the plaintive “Ain’t No Sunshine” (from his debut album Just As I Am) transformed him into an overnight success at the age of 33, eventually earning him the first of his three Grammys.
It was an achievement that, due to his grounding in the workaday world, he was able to keep from going to his head. “I was proud of it,” he told Music Weekend’s Bill Neil in 1988, “but … I looked at it probably equal to being employee of the month when I was a milkman.” He went on to say that he considered the accomplishments of his two school-teaching sisters worthier of acclaim. “I knew,” he said, “that I wasn’t doing brain surgery.”
Emotional diagnoses, though, were within his reach. In addition to chart-topping hits, Withers’ first two albums included songs such as “Grandma’s Hands” and “Harlem,” the subject matter of which could have easily come off sentimental or clichéd but that Withers probed with a sure hand and rendered vibrant. As reprised on his third album, Live at Carnegie Hall, they came off more vibrant still.
Ironically, the very same nonchalance that had smoothed his transition from blue-collar man to superstar began dogging his output, and from 1975 (the year that he left the lowly Sussex Records for Columbia) until 1985 (the year that he released his last studio album), Withers fell out of favor. But by then he’d left his mark.
It’s one that gives every indication of proving indelible.