With the passing of Percy Sledge this week, I started thinking about another seminal recording artist and songwriter we have not heard much from since 1985. His name is Bill Withers.
Never does a season of “American Idol” or “The Voice” air without several young contestants attempting a Bill Withers composition. Bill’s first hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971) and “Lean On Me” (1972) are the two best examples. Both are GRAMMY winners that became American classics. Withers has stated “Ain’t No Sunshine” was originally based on the sad love affair of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick from the film Days Of Wine and Roses. The song has also recently been featured in the Shonda Rhimes tv hit Scandal.
“Lean On Me” endures as perhaps the best song ever written about true friendship. Both of these songs are still relating to new audiences over 40 years after their initial release. Bill’s poignant “Grandma’s Hands” still gives me chills. Jill Scott recently covered Bill’s “Lovely Day,” which has become a WAVE classic. Bill’s 1980 collaboration with Grover Washington Jr. on “Just The Two Of Us” has never left the airwaves, and it too won a GRAMMY.
Since Bill’s relevance as an influence to several generations as a cultural and musical icon is so well established, why has no-one seen him perform since 1985? Bill told Rolling Stone magazine recently that many of his fans think he is dead. A Sunday morning breakfast at a Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles dumfounded him when he overheard some church ladies discussing his music. When Bill introduced himself, they said “You ain’t no Bill Withers.”
Bill was always different. He was nearly 30 when he had his first hit record. His personality had already been formed, so he never allowed the music business to corrupt him. He also never had a manager to steal his profits. He had complete control of song choice and release of his early recordings on the small Sussex record label. He signed with a major label well after his celebrity was established. Always very independent, after 10 years of not having creative control, Bill had definitely had enough, and quietly disappeared from the public.
Bill has invested well, and lives comfortably in the hills above West Hollywood. To this day, his office and website (billwithers.com) are maintained by his wife Marcia. They met in 1975, and have two adult children. Marcia will never allow Bill’s music to be featured in violent films, or anywhere else that might damage his image.
Bill has recently accepted his future induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, with both candor, humor, and humility by quoting the Billy Joel line: “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still Rock and Roll to me.” Bill says he is happy “to represent the old junk category.”
To his many fans, Bill is not old junk. Bill’s dynamic performance before the legendary Ali/Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (1974) stands out in the recent Soul Power documentary, while Still Bill (his own story), captures Bill at his best. His entire catalog of 9 albums is now available in a boxed set, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Recordings. The compilation won Bill yet another GRAMMY in 2014.
Bill has hinted that he may actually play a song or two in his tribute ceremony for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he “may have to buy a new suit.”