Man, I was bummed to hear that singer extraordinaire, songwriter, producer Bill Withers had passed away on March 30th. His family announced it yesterday. As we sat around last night in quarantine playing music, Bill was never far from my thoughts. Withers had walked away from the music business in 1985, just left it, after a 15 year career that saw him take home at least three Grammys.
The guy was one of a kind and simply one of the coolest people to walk the earth. He was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia which, forgive my saying this, sounds like a godforsaken spot if there ever was one. I think of my exile years in Arkansas and think, thank god I wasn’t in West Virginia. He enlisted in the Navy and served nine years. Afterwards he got a string of jobs in different factories in Los Angeles. He finally started singing and writing songs but refused to quit his day job. The album cover for his first album is a shot of him holding his lunch box outside the factory. We have to presume the record company man grabbed a photographer and drove to the factory to catch him on his lunch break. Fame came late to him and I don’t think he ever cared for it. Becoming famous at 32 didn’t change the man. He kind of remained, lunch box Bill.
I was always aware of Bill Withers without connecting the fact that all these hits I heard on the radio as kid were him. It was my friend Doug who first turned me on to Withers. He let me tape his Greatest Hits CD back in the late 80s and that connected the dots for me. Ah, cassettes… Bill sang the iconic “Lean On Me.” One of my favorites of his was “Lovely Day.” That is the most positive song you’re ever going to hear. But I liked Bill’s more… temporal songs. He liked to sing about love, baby. His second best song was the funky “Use Me.” It’s a song about a woman who treats him terribly but he’s ok with it as she uses him for sex. I guess that’s not a bad gig if you can get it. The song is so great that Mick Jagger, yes, Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz covered it on Jagger’s LP Wandering Spirit.
His crowning achievement was the masterpiece “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I can’t believe that song is only two minutes long. It’s a great, great song but nowadays it makes me slightly nervous when he sings, “Hey, I oughtta leave young thing alone.” I mean, I know the 70s were a different time but let’s keep our hands off the kinder. Back then we called it “jailbait” but ahem, that’s not cool now. I mean we have to assume he’s singing about a woman in her 20s. I’ve heard Sting and Paul McCartney cover that song. McCartney did it live on his Unplugged album but I don’t think Sting ever released a version. It’s as soulful and sad a song as you’re ever going to hear. I truly believe that my wife’s cat has this song running in his head every time she leaves the house to go to the store…”and she’s always gone too long, any time she goes away.” I think he’s afraid I’ll forget to feed him which, let’s face it, might be true.
At my friend Matthew’s first wedding, I was best man. At the reception I tracked the band down on a break and asked if they knew “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I was kind of obsessed with the track during that time period. Naturally they did and they were gracious enough to indulge me. I actually asked Matt’s mother to dance with me, a memory that is hazy and clear at the same time. I think every band probably has a version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” worked up. If they don’t they should.
I remember Bill being inducted to the Rock Hall of Fame a few years ago. He came up on stage, looking cool as usual in a tux and he just stood there. A number of other artists were singing his songs, songs he wrote and he just hung out on stage. He didn’t sing or even approach the microphone until it was over. Then he grabs the mic and says a humble “thank you.” Bill personified cool, man.
And now at 81, Mr. Withers has left the building. My condolences to his two kids and his wife and all of us out here who dug his music. He wasn’t a titan of rock but man, he sure could have been. He was too cool to take the reigns. Rest In Peace Bill! There truly “ain’t no sunshine” today.
Stay safe, healthy and isolated out there people… If you need something to help fill your time, try this: B&V’s Pandemic Playlist – Rock n Roll To The Self-Isolation Rescue.