Bill Withers Contemplating Rare Performance at Hall of Fame Induction
Bill Withers hasn’t released a new album since 1985 and he hasn’t played a public concert in so long he can’t even remember what decade it took place in, but the 76-year-old soul legend is alive and well, and he was quite psyched to learn this week that he’s finally been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I still have to process this,” he says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “You know that Billy Joel line, ‘Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s still rock & roll to me?’ I’m happy to represent the old junk category.” That’s an insanely modest statement for the guy that wrote “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands” and many other stunningly brilliant songs. Some of those tunes will be performed at the induction ceremony, and maybe even by Withers himself.
Yeah, that was a surprise.
I hadn’t really thought about it too much. People would bring it up to me over the years. It was kind of odd to get nominated, and then it all happened in a very short time for me.
Who told you about it?
Of course, my wife Marcia told me. She communicated with the head of the Hall of Fame.
What was your reaction to it?
I was sort of surprised, but not too surprised. My wife had done a number on me and she’s such a positive-thinking person. I should have had a premonition. Not long ago Joe Walsh invited me to dinner with Paul McCartney. And then I got invited to the Oprah gospel brunch, so things were kind of steering out of my normal thing. I don’t know what that means, but it’s silly. It’s a nice surprise.
I just never felt that anyone owed me this.
Do you think this took so long because you’ve been out of the public eye for so long?
I never thought it was some kind of entitlement or something. It could have happened or could not have happened. I’m sort of in a different corner here. John Wooden at UCLA said, “Awards belong to the giver.” So, I never felt that I was entitled or somebody owed me that. If you think about it, it’s an odd collection of people, from Elvis Presley to Miles Davis, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I just never felt that anyone owed me this. It’s something that’s nice that happened. I guess I’ll have to go buy a suit.
So that means you’re definitely coming I take it.
Yeah, if I’m still here. I don’t take that for granted at this age.
Is there any chance that you’ll get on stage and sing a song or two?
I don’t know if I can or not, but I’ll find out between then and now. Maybe I’ll go to the gym and eat some wheatgrass or something and find out if I can do that.
So you’re open to the idea of it?
If I can, yeah. I don’t know. I’m just following the yellow lines painted on the floor.
I just watched the documentary Still Bill the other day, and at the end of the film you get onstage and sing “Grandma’s Hands.” You sounded amazing, so it seems to me that you still have your voice.
Well, that was some years ago. You never know what toll time has taken on my voice. You’re like my wife. You’re this optimist.
How often do encounter people that are surprised to learn you’re still alive?
Oh, man. My wife does my publishing and she has this office down on Sunset. At least once a month someone calls inquiring as to whether I’m dead or not.
How do you feel about that?
It’s interesting. Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself. [Huge laugh] I have to tell you a funny story about that. A very famous minister, who will remain nameless, actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not.
What did you say?
I said, “Let me check.”