In a little under a month, Bill Withers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I’m grateful to whoever remembered me,” he says. “When I die, they’ll probably put this on my tombstone.” Withers hasn’t performed a public concert since the early 1990s, and the 76-year-old soul icon still isn’t sure if he’s going to at the April 18th ceremony at Cleveland’s Public Hall. “I have to fix my mind so that I’m not wounded by people who will blame me if I don’t,” he says. “Someone might say to me, ‘Why not?’ Well, what if I can’t? Why do you want to make me feel bad about it? People can be cruel.”
Last month, we spent two days at Withers’ Los Angeles house for a feature that covers his whole life story, from growing up in the tiny coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, to making it big in the early 1970s with immortal songs like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” to his decision to walk away from it all nearly 30 years ago, never once looking back. Here’s 10 things we learned that we were unable to fit into the story.
1. Near the end of his time with Sussex Records, he erased an entire album in a moment of rage when the label was on the verge of bankruptcy.
“They weren’t paying me,” he says. “They looked at me and said, ‘So, I owe you some money, so what?’ I was socialized in the military. When some guy is smushing my face down, it doesn’t go down well. Since I was self-contained and had no manager, my solution was to erase the album. I don’t even know which one it was, but it’s gone.” Cryptically, he refuses to say whether or not there’s a copy of the LP hidden away somewhere. “I ain’t gonna tell you what happened to it,” he says. “In hindsight, I have some regret and could probably have handled that differently.”
Sussex founder Clarence Avant dimly recalls the incident. “I guess we had an argument and he erased his album,” he says. “It was a hard time and there just wasn’t that much money.
2. He loves the MSNBC prison docuseries Lockup and CBS sitcoms.
“Lockup is a window into another way of life,” Withers says. “In prison, it’s OK if you’ve killed nine people, but if you’re a child molester, they’re gonna get you. I like to watch the show because right now the whole country, and really the whole world, is trying to sort out how you reconcile peace among different value systems.”
As for less heavy fare, “The Big Bang Theory is my favorite show,” he says. “Well, Mike and Molly is kind of gaining on it. I have them all recorded and I watch the reruns and stuff. I can’t stop listening to the closing theme from Mike and Molly. It’s this blues guitar that Keb’ Mo’ plays.”
3. Joe Walsh is one of his good friends.
“Joe’s stepson and my daughter were basically best friends in elementary school,” he says. “I call him my ‘Link to the Stars.’ He’s taken me to dinner with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. We went down to Craig’s on Melrose. They had to go through the back door to avoid the paparazzi, but I just walked through the front door and nobody noticed me. One other time, he brought me into the studio where he was recording. I looked around saw Mick Jagger, Ringo and Keb’ Mo’ all in the room. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s an Eagle, a Beatle and a Rolling Stone in this room.'”
4. He likes Taylor Swift, but not much else that’s on the radio.
“I can actually deal with Taylor Swift because she’s clever,” he says. “Being a songwriter, I can appreciate her wit. She deserves all of her success. But I do like Katy Perry? Look, I don’t think there’s a lot of 76-year-old people hanging on Katy Perry’s every word. I’m not against it, but it doesn’t come and get me. Asking me about today’s pop music would be like asking me who the national marbles champion is. I just don’t care. If music gets me, I’ll come and listen to it.”
5. He thinks Obama really benefited from growing up in Hawaii.
“If he’d grown up in Philadelphia or Alabama things would have been very different,” Withers says. “He was sheltered. It made him naive enough to try and ‘Kumbaya’ with everybody. One time I saw him reach over to Mitch McConnell, who was like, ‘Don’t you touch me!’ And Obama didn’t pick up on his reaction. That’s his biggest asset. The biggest conversations among black guys my age when he was running for president was, ‘This shit can’t happen, but God damn. He’s naive enough to think he can win.’ The most surprising thing for me is that he’d lived through this. I was honestly worried somebody was going to kill him.”
6. In 2004, he came out of retirement to perform at the 40th birthday party of Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores.
“His wife kept calling,” he says. “She said it was only for 150 people, but I kept refusing. Then the numbers got so high that my nose started to bleed. It was kinda cute and sort of fun.” The show was held at the Santa Monica Pier and featured Greg Phillinganes on keyboards and Alex Al on bass. “It was very, very private,” says Bill’s wife Marcia. “When they first called me they didn’t even want to say who it was for. The band rehearsed for two days and Greg did all the charts. I thought Bill did great considering he hadn’t sang in such a long time. They did about ten songs, and at the end everyone joined in to sing ‘Lean on Me.'”
7. Sony recently gave him back all of his unreleased tapes from his days on Columbia.
“There’s quite a few tracks down at the studio in our basement from the 1970s and 1980s,” says Marcia. “I would love for him to turn them into an album. Sony’s been trying, but he doesn’t want to look at it. The vocals are already there, but some of them are in demo form and he probably wouldn’t be happy with them. Even if it was just ten songs he was proud of, or even seven, he could add to them and put them out. I’d rather see that happen that someone else doing it after he’s gone.”
8. He very rarely sings these days, even in private, but he does tinker with the occasional song.
“He used to sing in the shower,” says Marcia. “But I haven’t heard him do that in a long time. He used to occasionally sit down at the piano in our house and play, but that’s rare these days too. He did write a song called ‘My Son’ that Denzel Washington wanted to use for a movie, but he just wasn’t feeling it. There’s a few others that he’s written. Some are just vocals or vocals with a little keyboard thing.”
Bill says that he’s very conflicted when it comes to working on new music. “I think about it all the time,” he says. “The goal is to close the gap between thinking about it and going downstairs and doing it.”
9. He’s in pretty good shape for his age.
“Yesterday I went to the urologist and he told me that I don’t have prostate cancer,” says Withers. “I’m trying to deal with the VA about this tinnitus that I got from working on those airplanes all those years. I few years ago I completely ruptured my achilles tendon. The doctor sewed it back together. He said I’d be OK, but I shouldn’t enter any marathons.”
10. He blames a single Columbia executive for the premature end to his career.
Withers signed to Columbia Records in 1975, but he says his 10-year stint on the label was absolutely miserable, with executives constantly second-guessing his decisions. He scored a Number 30 hit in 1977 with the classic “Lovely Day,” but nothing else got much attention. “I was not allowed in the studio from 1978 to 1985,” he says. “I couldn’t get past one guy, [A&R head] Mickey Eichner. He thought I should cover Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto.’ He was a moron and a pain in the ass. He would hide from me when I went up there. One guy kept me out of the recording studio for eight freakin’ years.”
We tracked Eichner down, and he has a very different recollection of events. “Bill filed a record we didn’t thought was strong enough,” he says. “We didn’t hear anything potent enough to bring to the marketplace. I tried to explain this wasn’t uncommon, but he got cranky right away. He didn’t have a manager, so there was nobody I could reason with. He’s very emotional.”
Eichner does recall suggesting Withers record an Elvis Presley song. “I’m positive I didn’t say ‘In the Ghetto’ though,” he says. “That wouldn’t have made sense for him. I just said it often makes sense to record a cover and I suggested maybe an Elvis song. It’s like a safety net in that if you make it yours, it could be a hit record.”
He takes great offense to the notion that he blocked Withers from recording. “It’s just not true,” Eichner says. “The reason he didn’t record is because he didn’t want to. If the whole thing was about him doing more sides, why would I reject the proposition of him going back to record? What I wanted was for him to record. I even told him he could take the record elsewhere if he wanted. Also, I never hid from him when he came up. Hearing him say all this is very upsetting to me.”