Bill Withers had just walked offstage from giving the greatest speech of the night at the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony when we caught up with him backstage. In a brief yet exuberant conversation, he discussed letting John Legend sing lead vocals, why he likes living a private life and how he knew his speech was a winner.
That speech was the most incredible speech I’ve seen.
Then you guys must’ve had Sarah Palin over here. Nah, I’m kidding.
Can you tell me about how you put that speech together? What was going through your mind.
I’ll make you an analogy. Years ago there was a great baseball player named Dizzy Dean. Somebody hit a line drive back and hit him in the head. The next day the newspaper said, “Doctors X-rayed Dean’s head and found nothing.” So nothing’s going through your mind. If stuff starts going through your mind, then you start trying to make sense. So this is a fun time, you just let it go, you know?
What about singing onstage? What was that was like?
Oh, the idea was to make them think I was singing. I was just sort of fooling around behind John Legend. It’s just something I don’t feel comfortable doing right now. If I was to go to the gym and jog around the track and everything, you know? But it’s been a long time for me. I haven’t done that in like 25 years or something.
What did that feel like?
Oh man, it was OK. You gotta figure I was in my thirties when I started doing this, so I was socialized as another person before this. So it’s not like my whole life was wrapped up in this entertainer thing. I started building houses, bought some tools, a truck, so there’s no rule that says your life has to be one thing. You have to have a certain personality. I really don’t have the personality to do this all the time. I’m not that outgoing. I’m rather shy – I’d rather hide. I never danced. I hid behind the guitar. So it’s all life, you know, as long as you’re doing something.
There was such an uproar after you spoke. What was it like to see how people were reacting to you?
Well, I intended to have some fun with them. It’s not like I was running for congress or anything, so nobody could fact-check you and stuff.
When you said this is the largest AA meeting . . .
This is the largest AA meeting in the Western Hemisphere?
That was fantastic. Did you have a favorite line of your speech you were looking forward to delivering?
Nah, I was just playing with it.
Did it feel any different when you got up there? What did it feel like to get that recognition?
Well, I’ve been around a long time. I usually know what I’m going for. I would have been disappointed if what I went for didn’t happen, you know? I’ve been pushing buttons a long time, so I know how to piss an old lady off. You live long enough, you go for what you want.
What has your weekend in Cleveland been like so far?
The weirdest thing for me is, I walk around all the time in Los Angeles. Nobody knows who I am. I couldn’t convince some ladies in Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles it was me. It’s a true story. So to come over here and all of a sudden this thing – it’s like, going to dinner with Paul McCartney and ducking the paparazzi, I don’t have to do that stuff. So this was a big switch for me. Normally I’m just going to Home Depot and trying to get back before Judge Judy!