Bill Withers Biography
Last updated: 04/01/2014 07:37:45 PM
The profound honesty and sensitivity found in his timeless music has made Bill Withers one of America’s premier singer/songwriters. Combining soulful warmth, a genuine and folksy feel with his immediately recognizable voice, Withers has sung his way into the hearts of millions worldwide. His ability to say what so many feel is uncanny.
Simple yet sophisticated, Withers’ music and lyrics have phenomenal accessibility and universal appeal. This, says Withers, comes from his own duality – he enjoyed a rural childhood and blossomed as an adult in an urban-international environment.
Withers was born in the small coal-mining town of Slabfork, West Virginia. Raised in nearby Beckley, West Virginia, Withers was just 13 when his father, a coal miner, died.
After working odd jobs to help out his mother, he joined the Navy at 17. During a nine-year term in the Navy, which carried him throughout the Far East, Withers was inspired to try his hand at singing. Songwriting came as a result of futile searches for original songs that expressed what he felt.
After his discharge from the Navy in 1965, he moved to Los Angeles in 1967 to pursue a career in music. While working full-time, he recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract. Despite his heavy investment in the demo tapes, not one record company or publisher expressed any interest. In early 1970, his music landed on the desk of Clarence Avant of Sussex Records who introduced Withers to Booker T. Jones of the M.G.’s.
Having signed to Sussex Records, Withers’ talent was evidenced by all with the 1971 release of his debut album JUST AS I AM. Music critics immediately praised the album as a sure classic in the making. JUST AS I AM unfolded with its acoustic guitar-driven soul, highlighted by Withers’ earthy vocal delivery and largely autobiographical tales. This album produced such memorable hits as "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands." Withers was awarded his first Grammy award as a songwriter for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in 1971.
Before even putting a band together, the record exploded and Withers found himself touring to which music lovers instantly connected. Withers and his new band, which included drummer James Gadson, guitarist Bernoce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap Bill toured extensively, both in the United States and abroad. They even played the world-famous Apollo Theater, the landmark showcase for black talent.
During a short break in touring, Withers recorded his second album, STILL BILL. From this album came the classics “Lean On Me” and “Use Me.” “Lean On Me” went to number one the week of July 8, 1972, but did not garner a Grammy award until 1987 when it was re-recorded by Club Nouveau.
On a rainy night in early 1973, Withers performed at Carnegie Hall, which he remembers as “one of the most exciting times of my life.” Producer and performer of this house-rocking treasure, BILL WITHERS LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL included the Vietnam War commentary “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and the warm “Friend of Mine.”
Released in 1974, +JUSTMENTS contained the unforgettable “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” that Withers had actually Written in 1968. Unfortunately, Withers got entangled in an untimely legal dispute with the Sussex label and was unable to record after +JUSTMENTS. He did however go on to write and produce two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record I FEEL A SONG. In the summer of 1974, Bill Withers performed in concert along with James Brown, Etta James, and BB King as part of the historical Ali/Forman fight in Zaire. His performance was captured on the soundtrack of the movie “When We Were Kings,” a recently released documentary on the fight. Parting ways with Sussex Records, Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975. His debut for the label MAKING MUSIC, MAKING FRIENDS featured the popular “Make Love To Your Mind,” the brilliant “Hello Like Before” covered by many jazz artists, “Paint Your Pretty Picture,” and “She’s Lonely” which graced the “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” m
otion picture and soundtrack.
He followed the CBS debut with NAKED & WARM in 1976 whose songlist included the soulful “City Of The Angels,” a track about Withers’ vision of Los Angeles. During 1977 and 1978, Withers crafted MENAGERIE, which included the hit song “Lovely Day” and the infectious “I Want To Spend the Night,” and BOUT LOVE, a collection of love songs featuring the memorable “Memories Are That Way.” Withers did not release another record until 1985.
During this time, he recorded the still-vibrant “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. and “Soul Shadows” with the Crusaders. Withers was nominated for four Grammies for "Just The Two of Us" in 1981 and won the songwriting Grammy for it. He continued to do several other joint projects, including the Grammy nominated vocal performance for “In The Name Of Love” with Ralph MacDonald, until he completed the remarkable, if underrated, WATCHING YOU, WATCHING ME. With accompanying music video for the song “Oh Yeah!,” the album featured “Whatever Happens” and “You Just Can’t Smile It Away,” two untouchable ballads.
In 1987, Withers received his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of the 1972 hit "Lean On Me" by Club Nouveau. "Lean On Me" was re-recorded and performed at the 1992 Presidential Inauguration festivities by Michael Bolton.
As evidence of their undeniable appeal, Withers’ songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists including Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Johnny Mathis, Mick Jagger, Crystal Gale, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, and Diana Ross just to name a few.
Artists who have recorded music Written by Withers cover nearly every genre: pop, jazz country and western, classical, rhythm and blues, gospel, and hip hop. Barbra Streisand and Etta James recorded “Grandma’s Hands”. Artists from Anita Bryant and Johnny Mathis to Club Nouveau have recorded “Lean On Me.” “Ain’t No Sunshine” has been done by jazz Flutist Bobbi Humphrey, Boney James, Lionel Hampton, Grover Washington, Jr., Michael Bolton, and STING among others. Gospel groups such as Out of Eden and Kirk Franklin, rapper Will Smith, Dance Music Group SOUL SYSTEM (on the BodyGuard Soundtrack) have recorded “Lovely Day.” Crooner Aaron Nevil to rapper Snow recorded “Use Me.”
Even today, it’s difficult not to turn on the TV or go to the movies and not hear music by Withers. His music and unique voice have been used in countless television and radio commercials, motion pictures, and on television programs. His music has been sampled and covered by many hip hop and rap artists of today, most notably by BlackStreet in the composition "No Diggity” and Will Smith’s version of “Just The Two Of Us” which was also featured in “Austin Powers – The Spy that Shagged Me” motion picture.
Withers has the gift of combining sincere melodies with common sense lyrics to evoke a human value. As one critic put it, "If life is one of experiences, who better than Bill Withers could put both the elements of music and words together that all can relate to."
For Withers it’s all quite simple. He says, "I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you."