Renowned singer / songwriter Bill Withers died on March 30th in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Withers, who is survived by his wife and two adult children, died of heart complications. Withers spent nine years in the U.S. Navy and working in aviation, prior to achieving stardom at age 33, and is best remembered for his string of six Top 40 hits in the 1970's and '80s — including such classic as hits “Ain't No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” “Use Me,” and the 1972 three-week chart-topper, “Lean On Me.”
Withers' 1981 teamup with Grover Washington, Jr. on “Just The Two Of Us” earned the pair the 1982 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
Withers, who was always a reluctant entertainer, hadn't released a new album since 1985. In 2005 he was inducted in to the Songwriter's Hall of Fame and a decade later, Steve Wonder ushered him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wonder spoke to Billboard and revealed that he had recently been in touch with Withers: “We’d been texting each other. He texted me in January telling me how much he appreciated me being there for him. Then in February he texted again talking about playing together. And I responded that it would be my pleasure, my joy. Just let me know and I’ll be there. That’s the last message I got from him.”
Wonder went on to say, “May the greatness of Bill Withers live forever. People will be listening to his songs and reading his lyrics like they do with great writers from ages ago, saying he was amazing. And yes, he was. We’ve got to show a lot of love to his wife and children and keep the legacy of what he left behind going ever strong. I think every artist at some point should record one of his songs on their projects. That’s how you keep it going. He deserves that.”
Joe Walsh became close to Bill Withers when their children became friends in middle school. He recalled to Rolling Stone: “Even though Bill didn’t really consider himself a musician, he wrote and sang a few songs and, to his great surprise, got famous. He told me he didn’t like the fame because people treated him differently. The more famous he got, the less he liked it. Once he acquired that fame though, he always distrusted the music business, and held onto his job assembling aircrafts long after he had to.”
He went on to say, “Bill described letting his career go: he’d had a great life and figured he would fade into history gracefully having left behind such a powerful music legacy. But somewhere along the way, I wonder if he got a bit lost. I always made a point to remind him just how much his music meant to everyone. He was missed and loved.”
Walsh closed by saying, “He was the greatest guy. I don’t think he never really knew how many hearts he touched. I miss him already. It was an honor and a privilege to have been his friend.”
No too long ago, we spoke with Bill Withers and he told us how it felt when another artist covered or sampled one of his songs: “Well, it's obviously satisfying, y'know? Yeah, it's a very satisfying feeling, as opposed to the alternative (laughs), y'know? Well, let me elaborate on that: You also feel a very deep gratitude to the people who, who did it.”
Bill Withers always remained humble about his success, preferring to think about it in larger terms than fame and prestige: “We don't get to choose who we are. We are all accidents of birth. So y'know, if you have some kind of gift, then that's what it is, it's a gift. So it's kind of hard to be proud of a gift, that's a little . . . because it didn't come from you, y'know?”
Withers, who was semi-retired for the past few decades, explained to us how he's spent his free time: “Trying not to watch too much Judge Judy or buy stuff in Home Depot that I'm never gonna use (laughs).”
During his speech inducting withers into the Rock Hall, Stevie Wonder spoke about the universality of Bill Withers' most enduring songs: “I think what determines a great songwriter and a singer, who can do both, is when they're able to let you feel every word that they sing and express, that you can relate to. You see, I've always felt that Bill Withers' songs were songs that were for every single culture there is.”
Bill Withers couldn't resist having a little fun at what was undoubtedly a pretty important night for him: “It's been a wonderful, odd odyssey, with ups, downs, and sometimes screw-me-arounds (laughter). Ha ha, we know about them (laughter). But I will always remember the good things. Bottom line is, check this out, Stevie Wonder knows my name and the brother just put me in the hall of fame (applause).”