Bill Withers was my first true idol. His debut album, Just As I Am, came out in May 1971, four months after I was born. When I first heard his songs, either on the radio or on my dad’s records, I knew that I was hearing something different. His music and his vocals were as down-to-earth as the earth itself. Too often, black artists get classified as otherworldly talents (Michael Jackson, Prince) or gritty, up-from-the-streets hustlers who are barely overcoming animal instincts (too many to name). Withers was something else: a black everyman, a superb, sensitive, soulful singer-songwriter who understood, and was able to communicate, the life that most of us live. He wrote about love, about loneliness, about anger, about sadness, about humor — all with fearless emotional directness.
That deep authenticity felt real to me because it was. Withers had been born poor in a coal-mining town in West Virginia, suffered from a severe stutter, lost his father at 13, enlisted in the Navy at 17, and then worked as an airplane mechanic as he tried to break into the music business. He eventually got a demo to Clarence Avant at Sussex Records in Los Angeles, but even after he was signed — even after he was recording — Withers kept his day job. The cover of his first album had a picture of him holding his actual lunch pail. That was everything to me. He went on to record three more albums for Sussex (Still Bill the next year, Live at Carnegie Hall in 1973, and +’Justments in 1974), and five more after switching to Columbia Records.
When people talk about the singer-songwriter era, they usually mean white acts, but that’s exactly what Withers was doing: singing and songwriting. So, by all means, go for the big hits — early songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” and “Use Me,” and the massive late-period hit “Just the Two of Us,” a 1980 duet with Grover Washington Jr.
But don’t sleep on the rest of the songs: “Grandma’s Hands,” “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?,” “I Wish You Well,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” For that matter, don’t stop at the songs. The live version of “Grandma’s Hands” has a two-and-a-half-minute spoken intro about his own grandmother and church music. I memorized it word for word.
The book on Bill is that his first four albums are the canon, and that the jump to Columbia did him no favors. It’s true that the Sussex albums are where Withers made his reputation and why he’s kept it. 1974’s +’Justments is especially amazing, a breakup record from the end of his brief marriage to the actress Denise Nicholas that precedes Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear by four years.
At Columbia, many believed, the down-to-earth presentation of his trademark sound was compromised. Bill never used any background vocals or horns, and most sadly, his acoustic guitar was traded in for L.A. sheen (now, mind you, he got the best supporting cast around, cats like Ray Parker Jr., Harvey Mason, Wah Wah Watson). It took some ’justments to get used to this sonic sheen.
But I love the Columbia records too. I love Naked & Warm, from 1976, which Columbia hated. The opening track, “Close to Me,” still makes all of my playlist mixtapes. I love Menagerie, from 1977, which has “Lovely Day,” an anthem of uplift where Withers takes off, holding a note for more than 18 seconds (quite possibly the longest ever for a Top 40 song). Even while performing a superhuman feat, he somehow still comes off as an everyman. The only album I wasn’t fully sold on at the time was Watching You Watching Me, from 1985, although there’s still something about it. The Eighties, yacht-rock feel of the record, with all its Yamaha-synth trappings, reminds me of my dad, who was also a massive Withers fan. It was probably the last album he and I could bond over, since hip-hop was luring me away from the music he had led me to discover. (That’s an irony, since hip-hop kept extracting the DNA of songs like “Use Me” and “Kissing My Love” to give life to its culture.) For his part, Withers didn’t seem too enamored with that record. In the wake of it, he walked away from the business — for good. Nearly every other artist kept working, or took time off but staged a comeback. Not Bill.
When J Dilla died in 2006, I wasn’t interested in producing anymore, except for the Roots, but to keep my chops, I started bucket-listing projects that I would still want to take on. Bill Withers was my first choice. Word came back that Withers was reluctant. I figured he might be. I decided to start with Al Green, who had won Grammys in gospel and pop, but never in soul. If I got Al a soul Grammy, Bill would follow, right? When Al got two soul Grammys for the record we worked on, Lay It Down, I reached out to Bill. “Nah,” he said. “I’m good.”
Next, I went for Booker T. Jones, who had produced Bill’s debut back in 1971. If I get Booker a Grammy, I thought, how could Bill possibly say no? The record we made with Booker, The Road from Memphis, won a Grammy. “Nah,” Bill said. “I’m good.”
My last-ditch attempt was to cover Bill’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” a gripping Vietnam-era protest song from the Carnegie Hall album. The Roots recorded it with John Legend for Wake Up! in 2010, replacing Bill’s original spoken-word intro with a new one by John that reminded people that since war was always with us, songs like “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” should always be with us too.
That brought Bill to us, finally. The basketball legend Bill Russell, who was one of Withers’ close friends, was in a Starbucks and heard our song. “Who is this?” he said. They told him. Then Bill Russell called Bill Withers and said, “You have to hear this version. It’s ferocious.” Bill’s daughter got him a copy, and he wrote one of the most beautiful emails I have ever read, saying how appreciative he was that we had revisited the song. John mentioned that we were playing in Los Angeles and asked him if he would come see our show. He did. He came backstage afterward. At the time, he was 71 years old, but he looked late-fifties, 60 at most. There was no way you could have convinced me that he wasn’t going to live to be 100. He warmed up to us, and then warmed us up with stories.
When the moment was right, I eased my pitch to him. I told him how long he had been important to me, and how I could be his new James Gadson (the legendary session drummer who worked with him through the early Seventies). I wrapped up. Withers looked at me. I thought I saw a “yes” in his eyes. He was silent for a good 17 seconds, almost as long as that note in “Lovely Day.”
“No,” he said.
In a strange way, getting turned down by Bill Withers was almost as rewarding as any other experience. He was true to himself to the end, a hero and an inspiration. I will miss him, and I know that his music will keep me company when I do.