Soul legend Bill Withers dies at age 81

Soul great Bill Withers, the three-time Grammy-winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee behind such classics as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me,” died Monday from heart complications, according to a statement released by his family on Friday morning.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the statement read. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

While Withers’s career was relatively brief — he stopped making in music in 1985 — the impact he made with his string of hits in the ‘70s was immense, long after he withdrew from the public eye. Mostly recently, “Lean on Me” had experienced a resurgence due to the coronavirus pandemic, with people in self-quarantine posting their own versions on social media to spread a message of solidarity and hope. 

Withers was born the youngest of six children in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, on July 4, 1938. After serving in the Navy for nine years and overcoming a childhood stutter, he moved to Los Angeles in 1967 to pursue a musical career, funding his own home demo tapes. He found succes relatively late in life, at age 32, when one of those demos landed in the hands of Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant. Avant signed Withers and hired Stax legend Booker T. Jones to produce his first album, Just As I Am, in 1971; the record, which featured Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. on bass and drums and Stephen Stills on lead guitar, yielded the hit singles “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The latter song, which was initially released as the B-side of Withers’s debut single “Harlem,” won a Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1972.

Withers continued to record hit albums and singles and work with artists like Grover Washington Jr., Gladys Knight & The Pips, and the Crusaders, but a move to Columbia Records in 1975, after Sussex went bankrupt, resulted in his career stalling. Having lost the creative control he had at Sussex, he battled with Columbia executives and released no full albums between 1978 and 1985. The disgruntled singer-songwriter ultimately decided to for all intents and purposes retire from music after 1985’s Watching You Watching Me, though he continued to participate in sporadic collaborations and reissue projects. A documentary about his life, Still Bill, was released in 2009, and he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder in 2015.

Withers’s music continued to inspire younger recording artists and find new audiences after his retirement. A cover of “Lean on Me” was a Grammy-winning No. 1 hit for R&B group Club Nouveau in 1987, inspired the title of a 1989 Morgan Freeman film, and was performed at the presidential inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “Lovely Day” made a comeback in 1995 when it was used in a popular Gap commercial directed by Hype Williams. In 1996, “Grandma’s Hands” was sampled in BLACKstreet’s No. 1 hit “No Diggity.” Will Smith’s 1997 single “Just the Two of Us,” which sampled Withers’s original recorded by Grover Washington Jr., topped Billboard’s Hot Rap Song chart. And “Ain’t So Sunshine” was covered by everyone from Michael Jackson to Ladysmith Black Mambazo to multiple American Idol contestants, including Idol Season 8 winner Kris Allen, who made the top 40 with it in 2009. Withers’s music was also sampled by the Black Eyed Peas and Twista and covered by such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Al Jarreau, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Paul McCartney, Aaron Neville, Linda Ronstadt, Diana Ross, Sting, Barbra Streisand, and Nancy Wilson.

“We lost a giant of songwriting today,” ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams said in a statement Friday. “Bill Withers’s songs are among the most treasured and profound in the American songbook — universal in the way they touch people all over the world, transcending genre and generation. He was a beautiful man with a stunning sense of humor and a gift for truth.” 

Withers is survived by his second wife, Marcia Johnson, and their two children, Todd and Kori. As the news of his death broke on Friday, dozens of his famous admirers took to social media to pay tribute.

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