On March 30, 2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.
Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.
His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”
For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.
And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”
Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.
Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.
Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.
Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.
Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.
Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”
Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.
He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.
While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.
In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.
When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.
One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.
He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.
As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”
Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.
Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”
In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.
I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on
Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.