There has been an outpouring of love for Bill Withers ever since the news arrived Friday that the soul legend had died from heart complications at 81. Many musicians have taken to the internet to remember the icon, from Questlove to Flea.
I met Bill about 10 years ago thanks to our kids — Christian and Kori have known each other since middle school. This was a period when Bill was feeling a bit disconnected and isolated and the kids thought that maybe we could connect, maybe collaborate and do what musicians do together.
I reached out to him and we had a series of lunches and hangouts, over the course of which he shared with me the incredible American folk story that is his life. From growing up in a small coal-mining town called Slab Fork to his years in the Navy with his best friend Johnny Mathis. He told me how after the Navy, Mathis gave up the chance to try out for the Olympics as a high jumper and recorded his first album instead. Bill helped Johnny with that record.
Even though Bill didn’t really consider himself a musician, he wrote and sang a few songs and, to his great surprise, got famous. He told me he didn’t like the fame because people treated him differently. The more famous he got, the less he liked it. Once he acquired that fame though, he always distrusted the music business, and held onto his job assembling aircrafts long after he had to.
Bill wrote songs we all know and love, but he had stopped making music because he disliked the business side of making music. Bill was always a straight-ahead guy. Not one for contracts, if he said he was going to do something, by God he did it.
Bill described letting his career go: he’d had a great life and figured he would fade into history gracefully having left behind such a powerful music legacy. But somewhere along the way, I wonder if he got a bit lost. I always made a point to remind him just how much his music meant to everyone. He was missed and loved.
Our friendship began with us getting out of the house and sharing stories and making plans and I feel blessed for all the good times we shared. A few years ago I brought a bunch of buddies together to Capitol Studios to collaborate on a blues album and I’ll never forget the day Bill came around. He joined me, Ringo, Mick Jagger, Dr. John and Keb’ Mo’; we were just a bunch of dudes having fun, sharing jokes and making music.
There was the time I had been asked to be on Criminal Minds on CBS and I brought Bill along; we each had a couple of lines in a card game with the principal actors and Bill stole the scene! I remember when he got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He spoke longer than he was supposed to, but his speech was the highlight of the night. He came to a couple of our Eagles shows and was coming to our upcoming show at the Forum.
He was the greatest guy. I don’t think he never really knew how many hearts he touched. I miss him already. It was an honor and a privilege to have been his friend.