“The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that.” Praised by no less a songwriting authority than Sting (aka wor Gordon) but missing from chart action for over quarter of a century, Bill Withers was born today in 1938.
Singer songwriter William Harrison Withers aka Bill Withers born, Slab Fork, West Virginia, USA. Hampered by a stutter and suffering from asthma, Bill Withers opted to join the US navy rather than follow his father down the coal mines.
And after nine years of military service, 1965 found him living in Los Angeles and assembling toilet seats for the aviation industry. However the possibility of writing and playing songs in order to make a living saw him begin composing and making self-funded demo recordings.
Signing to Sussex Records in 1970, they installed Withers in a studio with Booker T.Jones as producer and The MGs as backing band. The results were the album, “Just As I Am” and the single “Harlem” (itself a fine tune) – coolly received until DJs began playing the B side, “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the record buying public followed suit.
That success earned Bill a Grammy award and invitations to prestigious TV shows such as “Tonight” capitalising on his popularity with chart-topping, gospel-flavoured “Lean on Me” and the funkier “Use Me”.
Appearing at the 1974 concert in Zaire that accompanied the Ai/Frasier “Rumble In The Jungle”, Withers later sought however to downplay the cultural significance of the whole occasion. A reluctance to conform to record company pressure also saw him refuse to perform more overtly “black” material in the style of fellow “Rumbler” James Brown.
Compilation album staple “Lovely Day” then heralded the start of a new record deal in 1975, this time with Columbia, with another Grammy to reward Bill’s 1981 hit “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. However his output tailed off soon after, and there has been no new commercially released material since 1985.
Despite continuing to write and record, Withers has spoken of a reluctance to return to the promotional treadmill and of lacking motivation to travel. Unlike many other artists with no such qualms, he’s also admitted a fear of having new performances of his back catalogue unfavourably compared to the originals – whose royalties continue to support him. Given the musical magnificence of his “Live at Carnegie Hall” album, he might just have a point….
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And here’s some footage of Bill in action: