Today is an important day as we remember the legendary poet and musician, Bill Withers. The songwriter, who was known for the timeless classics “Lean on Me”, “Lovely Day”, and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” died at 81-years-old on Monday in Los Angeles, California, due to heart complications. Even in the midst of his death, all sorts of people (especially health care workers) have been posting covers and renditions of “Lean on Me” to help encourage the public through the coronavirus.
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This is a difficult time for the world because of the coronavirus pandemic. His music has been used countless times to help boost morale during exact times like these, so it’s important to remember the legacy he left.
Singer-songwriter Bill Withers was a three-time Grammy Award winner who stopped making music around the mid-80s. In a family statement, he is remembered as a “…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.”
His songs have become (still to this day) popular soundtracks to play during the more important moments in life. His strong voice over bluesy melodies, soulful funk, and groovy beats evoke homely and warm emotions in all his listeners. “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” hit the Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and “Lean on Me” was played at the inaugurations of former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers lived an incredibly eventful life for someone who became a legendary singer-songwriter. He joined the navy at 17 years old and worked as an aircraft mechanic for 9 years. After getting discharged, he moved to Los Angeles and was working at an aircraft parts factory when he bought a guitar and started recording demos towards getting a recording contract.
By 1971, under the guidance of Booker T. Jones, Withers put out “Just as I Am”, his first album signed under Sussex Records. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was on this album, hitting no. 3 on Billboard charts and was in the top 40 for 16 weeks. A year later, he came out with the classic “Lean on Me” on his second album “Still Bill.”
Later came “Lovely Day”, co-written by Skip Scarborough, featuring Withers holding out the note on the word “day” for 19 seconds. His “Live at Carnegie Hall” album also hit the Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
When Sussex Records went bankrupt, Columbia Records took him on, but things were no longer the same. After trying to get him to do an Elvis cover, Withers no longer felt like he could control his music. Nevertheless, in 2015, Stevie Wonder inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By that time, he had received a Grammy award for both ‘Ain’t No Sunshine” in 1971 and “Just the Two of Us” in 1981.
His music was sampled in “No Diggity” by BlackStreet, “Bridging the Gap” by the Black Eyed Peas, and “Sunshine” by Twista. You can still hear covers and remixes everywhere to this day.
Withers told Rolling Stone, “I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
Rest in Peace Bill Withers. May your legacy continue to carry us through the most difficult times.