Bill Withers Obit
By Michael A. Gonzales
Back in 2000, I dated a Chicago born woman who loved Bill Withers. Every morning, with the summer sun shining through her bedroom window, she played Withers’ 1994 greatest hits album Lean On Me, named after his 1972 single. As the minutes moved along, the bed was made and the coffee poured as these exquisite songs I hadn’t thought of in years, such as “Grandma’s Hands,” “Harlem” and “Lovely Day,” played until the final track “Just the Two of Us” (featuring Grover Washington Jr.) completed the cycle.
There were many memories that Withers’ music invoked in me, from my own grandmother to those childhood days in Harlem to the funky jealousy of “Who Is He (And What Is He to You).” It was those “lovely day” new millennium mornings in that came to mind when I heard that Bill Withers, who was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia on Independence Day in 1939, had died at the age of 81.
Back in those uptown days of my New York City youth, Bill Withers was an inspiration for this budding writer, because he was one of the best storytellers in music. In the 2019 Netflix documentary “Black Godfather,” music executive Clarence Avant, the man who originally signed Bill Withers, cited him as “a brilliant writer.” Later in the same Reginald Hudlin directed film, cultural critic Nelson George observed, “Bill Withers expands what commercial Black music is in that Bill looks like a folk artist…but, around the frame of him was a really great, funk R&B thing.”
Withers, who was already in his 30s in 1970 when Avant signed him to the Los Angeles based Sussex Records, was provided that “big leap” and released his Booker T. produced debut Just as I Am the following year. The album contained Withers’ breakthrough hit “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which won the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1972. In 1972 the singer also released Still Bill, which contained the soulful “Lean On Me,” a song that would become a pop standard. In 2009 Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover, who that year appeared in the Wither’s documentary “Still Bill,” told me, “My family played the Just as I Am 8-track in my father’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Those are some of my earliest memories, riding with my family to cook-outs and picnics with everyone singing along to ‘Lean on Me.’ Withers is the working man’s troubadour. He is what Bob Dylan wants to be. His music is literally therapeutic for him and us. What I loved about him is he just seems very real not slick or an affectation.”
“Bill Withers expands what commercial Black music is in that Bill looks like a folk artist…but, around the frame of him was a really great, funk R&B thing.”-Nelson George
Like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke before him, Withers also understood the business of music as much as he did his own art. Indeed, retaining the publishing on most of his songs, which gave Withers a very comfortable life. “Bill was always a simple kind of guy,” guitarist Craig McMullen, who played on a few gigs with Withers including “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and the vintage concert series “Midnight Special,” said in 2009. “He was a more down home boy who never had an entourage; working with Bill was like kicking’ it with a homie.”
While Withers told Wax Poetics writer Dan Nishimoto in 2006 the he, “can’t really play the guitar,” he still managed to strum just what he needed to convey the messages of life, love, pain and joy in his timeless material. “Bill played just enough guitar to do what he did,” McMullen said. “But, what he did was really good.”
Withers is the working man’s troubadour.Corey Glover, Living Colour
When I heard of Withers’ death from heart complications, I (again) thought about the enlightening documentary “Still Bill,” a valuable study of the man and his work. Filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack constructed a brilliant portrait of a musician who, after years of success, dropped out of the music business in 1985. As Withers admitted candidly, “The fame game was kicking my ass.” Still, his music continued to be covered (Me’shell NdegéOcello’s version of “Who Is He and What Is He to You” is a killer diller), sampled (“No Diggity”) and used in films (Jackie Brown). There was also a tribute concert for Withers in 2008 in Prospect Park, which features heavily in the documentary.
“This is my first tribute concert,” Withers said matter-of-factly in “Still Bill” as he stepped on stage to much cheers, applause and stand ovations. The concert, produced by Hal Willner in conjunction with Celebrate Brooklyn, the concert featured performances by Angelique Kidjo, Corey Glover, Nona Hendryx, The Swell Season, James “Blood Ulmer, Sandra St. Victor, The Persuasions, Eric Mingus, Jim James, Howard Tate and Henry Grimes with a great band featuring Lenny Pickett, Steven Bernstein and Cornell Dupree. Having been blessed with third row seats at the event, I can testify that it a night of pure joy and warmth. However, the biggest thrill for the thousands gathered that balmy August night in 2008, was when the man himself stepped to the stage and sang the achingly autobiographical “Grandma’s Hands.” It was the legend’s first time on stage in over two decades.
“The fame game was kicking my ass.”Bill Withers
A year later, I interviewed the “Still Bill” filmmakers in their Chelsea office space. Laughing at the memory, the “Still Bill” directors remembered well the first time that the singer decided to take to the stage twenty-three years after walking away from the business. “We thought he was going to the bathroom or to get a drink or something,” said Vlack. He and co-director Baker have known each other since they were teenagers growing-up in the Bay Area twenty years ago. “We had no idea that he was headed to the stage.” Ten years in the making, “Still Bill” is a rare kind of music documentary, one that doesn’t fit into the usual ripped-off, drugged-out and messed-up scenario of American soul men.
Yet, my one problem with the film is how they completely avoided talking about his first marriage to actress Denise Nicolas (“Room 222”) in 1973. When they divorced a year later, reportedly after he had assaulted her on the set of the Fred Williamson’s blaxploitation flick “The Soul of Nigger Charley,” Withers told Jet magazine, “I’m too old fashioned to have married an actress. I couldn’t deal with things like her doing kissing scenes with other men in movies. I could never accept that. The world today would look on me as being very square and narrow-minded, perhaps. But, man, that’s the way I am.” His painfully honest 1974 album ‘Justments served as Withers’ aural diary of that period.
However, as Baker explained, “We wanted to make a movie that came from Bill the father, Bill the husband as well as Bill the musician. We weren’t interested in making a “Behind the Music” episode.” While Vlack once played in a cover band that performed Wither’s material and Baker recalled his pops playing the Live at Carnegie Hall disc repeatedly, both men were devoted fans who invested nearly ten years researching and making this film.
“There wasn’t much on the internet when we began in 1999, but we did find some magazine articles on eBay,” said Vlack. “Then, somebody passed us his wife Marsha’s email address and we built from there. It still took a long time, but it finally happened.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of “Still Bill” is the amazing archival footage from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “Soul!” and various BBC specials. “If we were doing a documentary on Stevie Wonder, it might’ve been easier to find more material,” explains Baker. “But, with Bill, he really didn’t make that many appearances and didn’t have any video footage of himself.” The filmmakers interviewed friends and admirers Grover Washington Jr., Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Angelique Kidjo and Sting, who said of Withers, “The hardest thing to be in music is simple, yet profound.” A complicated man who was a genius artist, Bill Withers music will be conjuring lovely memories for a very long time.
Check out a few classic Bill Withers moments:
Bill Withers Live
“Black Godfather” trailer:
1973 interview with Buster Jones on Soul Unlimited
“Use Me” on Soul Train
Albums mentioned in this piece:
Just as I am
Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall
Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.