By the time he was transferred to California in the mid-1960s, he realized he’d never have the courage to quit the Navy if he couldn’t rid himself of his stutter. “I couldn’t get out a word,” he says. “I realized it wasn’t physical. I figured out that my stutter — and this isn’t the case for everyone — was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did of myself. I started doing things like imagining everybody naked — all kinds of tricks I used on myself.”
Against all conventional wisdom, it worked (though he still trips over the occasional word), and in 1965 he quit the Navy and became “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California.” He eventually took a job at an aircraft parts factory. As a Navy aircraft mechanic, he was ridiculously overqualified, but “it was all about survival.”
One night around that time, he visited a club in Oakland where Lou Rawls was playing. “He was late, and the manager was pacing back and forth,” says Withers. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t show up on time.’ I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting. Then Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.”
Withers was in his late twenties. His music-business experience consisted of sitting in a couple of times with a bar band while stationed in Guam in the Navy. He’d never played the guitar, but he headed to a pawn shop, bought a cheap one and began teaching himself to play. Between shifts at the factory, he began writing his own tunes. “I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he says.
He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough to record a crude demo. Withers shopped it around to major labels, which weren’t interested, but then he got a meeting with Clarence Avant, a black music executive who had recently founded the indie label Sussex and had just signed the songwriter Rodriguez (of Searching for Sugar Man fame). “[Withers’] songs were unbelievable,” Avant remembers. “You just had to listen to his lyrics. I gave him a deal and set him up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album.”
Jones, the famous Stax keyboardist, went through his Rolodex and hired the cream of the Los Angeles scene: drummer Jim Keltner, MGs bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, Stephen Stills on guitar. “Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” says Jones. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”
Withers was extremely uneasy until Graham Nash walked into the studio. “He sat down in front of me and said, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ ” Withers says. “I’ll never forget it.” They laid down the basic tracks for what became 1971’s Just As I Am in a few days. (One of the songs was inspired by the 1962 Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick movie Days of Wine and Roses; Withers was watching it on TV, and the doomed relationship at the film’s center brought to mind a phrase: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”)
The album’s cover photo was taken during Withers’ lunch break at the factory; you can see him holding his lunch pail. “My co-workers were making fun of me,” he says. “They thought it was a joke.” Still unconvinced that music would pay off, he held on to his day job until he was laid off in the months before the album’s release. Then, one day, “two letters came in the mail. One was asking me to come back to my job. The other was inviting me on to Johnny Carson.” The Tonight Show appearance, in November 1971, helped propel “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the Top 10, and the follow-up, “Grandma’s Hands,” reached Number 42.
By then, Withers was 32; he still marvels at the fact that he was able to come out of nowhere at that relatively advanced age. “Imagine 40,000 people at a stadium watching a football game,” he says. “About 10,000 of them think they can play quarterback. Three of them probably could. I guess I was one of those three.”
He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. One of the first things he came up with was a simple chord progression: “I didn’t change fingers. I just went one, two, three, four, up and down the piano. It was the first thing I learned to play. Even a tiny child can play that.”
Tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship called “Lean on Me.” Withers didn’t think much of it. “But the guys at the record company thought it was a single,” he says. It became the centerpiece of his second album, 1972’s Still Bill. The song rocketed to Number One and was inescapable for the entire year.
Withers was now a hot commodity, appearing on Soul Train and the BBC, and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall that was released as a live album. But he refused to hire a manager, insisting on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs to writing the liner notes to designing his album covers. “He was so opinionated,” says Avant. “I was the closest thing he had to a manager. Everybody was scared of him.”
“Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema,” says Withers. “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”