William Harrison “Bill” Withers, Jr. (born July 4, 1938) is an American singer-songwriter and musician who performed and recorded from 1970 until 1985. He recorded a number of major hits including “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, “Lovely Day”, and “Grandma’s Hands”. His life was the subject of the 2009 documentary film Still Bill.
Withers was born the youngest of six children in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. Raised in nearby Beckley, West Virginia, he was thirteen years old when his father died. Withers enlisted with the United States Navy at the age of eighteen and served for nine years, during which time he became interested in singing and writing songs. Discharged from the Navy in 1965, he relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 for a musical career.
Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night. When he debuted with the song “Ain’t No Sunshine” he refused to resign his job because of his belief that the music business was a fickle industry and that he was still a novice compared to other acts.
During early 1970, Withers’ demonstration tape was auditioned favorably by Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records. Avant signed Withers to a record deal and assigned former Stax Records stalwart Booker T. Jones to produce Withers’ first album. Four three-hour studio sessions were planned to record the album, but funding caused the album to be recorded in three sessions with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” as singles. The album features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar.
The album was a success and Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap.
At the 14th annual Grammy Awards on Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The track had already sold over one million copies and was awarded a platinum disc by the R.I.A.A. in September 1971.
During a hiatus from touring, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill. The single, “Lean on Me” went to number one the week of July 8, 1972. It was Withers’ second gold single with confirmed sales in excess of three million. His follow-up, “Use Me” released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place on October 12, 1972. His performance at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, was recorded, and released as the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall on November 30, 1972. In 1974, Withers recorded the album +’Justments. Due to a legal dispute with the Sussex company, Withers was unable to record for some time thereafter.
During this time, he wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record I Feel a Song, and in October 1974 performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B. B. King four weeks prior to the historic Rumble in the Jungle fight between Foreman and Ali in Zaire. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack. Other footage of his performance is included in the 2008 documentary film Soul Power which is based on archival footage of the 1974 Zaire concert.
After Sussex Records folded, Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975. His first release with the label, Making Music, Making Friends, included the single “She’s Lonely”, which was featured in the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. During the next three years he released an album each year with Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977, containing the successful “Lovely Day”), “Bout Love” (1978) and “Get On Down”; the latter song also included on the Looking for Mr. Goodbar soundtrack.
In 1976, Withers performed “Ain’t No Sunshine” on Saturday Night Live.
Due to problems with Columbia, he concentrated on joint projects between 1977 and 1985, including the successful “Just the Two of Us”, with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., which was released during June 1980. It won a Grammy on February 24, 1982. Withers next did “Soul Shadows” with The Crusaders, and “In the Name of Love” with Ralph MacDonald, the latter being nominated for a Grammy for vocal performance.
In 1985 came Watching You Watching Me, which featured the Top 40-rated R&B single “Oh Yeah”, and ended Withers’ business association with Columbia Records.
In 1988, a new version of “Lovely Day” from the 1977 Menagerie album, entitled “Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)” and remixed by Ben Liebrand, reached the Top 10 in the United Kingdom, leading to Withers’ performance on the long-running Top of the Pops that year. The original release had reached #7 in the UK in early 1978, and the re-release climbed higher to #4.
In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy Award nomination and on March 2, 1988, his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for the re-recording of “Lean On Me” by Club Nouveau on their debut album Life, Love and Pain, released in 1986 on Warner Bros. Records.
In 1996, a portion of his song “Grandma’s Hands” was sampled in the song “No Diggity” by BLACKstreet, featuring Dr. Dre. The single went to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold 1.6 million copies and won a Grammy in 1999 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Withers contributed two songs to Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 release License to Chill. Following the reissues of Still Bill on January 28, 2003, and Just As I Am on March 8, 2005, there was speculation of previously unreleased material being issued as a new album. In 2006, Sony gave back to Withers his previously unreleased tapes.
In 2007, “Lean On Me” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Withers married actress Denise Nicholas in 1973, during her stint on the sitcom Room 222. The couple divorced the following year. In 1976, Withers married Marcia Johnson and they had two children, Todd and Kori. Marcia eventually assumed the direct management of his Beverly Hills-based publishing companies, in which his children also became involved as they became adults.
Listen to some of his songs below