The world awoke to the somber news that a light has been lost in American music history. Soul legend Bill Withers passed away from heart complications on Monday (March 30). His family confirmed his death in a statement provided to the Associated Press on Friday (April 3). He was 81-years-old.
His death comes as the world is battling a global coronavirus pandemic although his family made no connection between his passing and the current COVID-19 scare. And yet, while Withers’ retired from the music industry in the mid-1980s, his timeless classics have been called upon for inspiration especially during our current global state of affairs. His brief but influential career gave birth to timeless anthemic hymns like “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lovely Day,” that have served as the soundtracks for some of our best and worst days.
BET.com is recognizing five essential facts to commemorate the life and legacy of soul legend, Bill Withers.
Withers did not record his first song until he was 32 years old.
Born in the Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers joined the Navy when he was 17-years-old and served his country for nine years. After he was discharged, he moved to Los Angeles where he worked at an airport parts factory while pursuing music on the side, according to Rolling Stone. His demo tape eventually landed in the hands of Clarence Avant, and his first album, Just As I Am, was released under Sussex Records in 1971 where he remained until the label went bankrupt in 1975.
He wrote his enduring classic, “Lean On Me” while toying around with a new piano.
“I bought one of those Wurlitzer pianos. I screwed the legs on it and sat down and just started running my hands up and down [the keys]. That’s a song that most children find is the first song that they learn to play because you don’t have to change your fingers — you just go up and down. Then the lyrics are what crossed my mind,” he told GoldMine Magazine in 2010.
Withers was inspired to write his revered timeless classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” after watching the 1962 film, Days of Wines And Roses.
“They [characters portrayed by actors Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon] were both battling alcoholism, and at one point one of them would be up and one of them would be down. They kept leaving each other. Then I looked out of the window, and probably a bird ate a peanut and that just crossed my mind. The song was written pretty quickly,” he shared in the aforementioned GoldMine Magazine interview.
At one point, he briefly considered rewriting his iconic “I know” refrain. “I was gonna write something in there and Booker [T. Jones] said, ‘Nope, just keep it like that,’” he said.
Withers retired in 1985 following the release of his final album, Watching You Watching Me.
Save for a few exceptions, Withers quit making music in the mid-1980s following a contentious stint at Columbia Records.
“This business came to me in my 30s. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me,” he explained to Rolling Stone.
He was subsequently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Withers was nominated for nine Grammy Awards over the course of his career.
He went on to win three Grammy Awards for “Ain’t No Sunshine” in 1971, “Just The Two Of Us” in 1981, and “Lean On Me” in 1987, respectively. He released a total of eight albums before his retirement.
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