A Rockapaedia Obituary
Bill Withers died aged eighty-one on 30th March 2020 from a heart condition in Los Angeles, California, United States of America.. He was survived by his wife, Marcia and their son Todd and daughter Kori.
Bill had married actress Denise Nicholas in 1973 but the couple divorced in 1974.
Bill Withers, the youngest of six children, was born William Harrison Withers Jr. on 4th July 1938 in in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, United States of America.. Raised in nearby Beckley, he was thirteen years old when his father died. Bill enlisted with the United States Navy at the age of eighteen and served for nine years, during which time he became interested in singing and writing songs.
Bill left the Navy in 1965 and relocated to Los Angeles in 1967 to start a musical career. Bill worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night. When he debuted with the song "Ain't No Sunshine", he refused to resign from his job because he believed the music business was a fickle industry.
During early 1970, Bill Withers's demonstration tape was auditioned favorably by Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records and Clarence Avant signed Bill Withers to a record deal and assigned former Stax Records stalwart Booker T. Jones to produce his first album. Four three-hour recording sessions were planned for the album, but funding caused the album to be recorded in three sessions with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. The album 'I Am' was released in 1971 with the tracks, "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands" as singles and the album features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar. On the cover of the album, Bill Withers is pictured at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California, holding his lunch box.
The album was a success, and Bill Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap.
At the 14th annual Grammy Awards, on Tuesday, 14th March, 1972, Bill Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for "Ain't No Sunshine". The track had already sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in September 1971.
During a hiatus from touring, Bill Withers recorded his second album, 'Still Bill'. The single, "Lean on Me" went to number one the week of 8th July, 1972. It was Bill Withers’s second gold single with confirmed sales in excess of three million. His follow-up, "Use Me" released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place in October, 1972. His performance at Carnegie Hall on 6th October, 1972, was recorded, and released as the live album 'Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall' on 30th November, 1972. In 1974, Bill Withers recorded the album +'Justments. Due to a legal dispute with the Sussex company, Bill Withers was unable to record for some time thereafter.
During this time, Bill wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record 'I Feel a Song', and in October 1974 performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King in Zaire. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film 'When We Were Kings', and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack. Other footage of his performance is included in the 2008 documentary film 'Soul Power', which is based on archival footage of the 1974 Zaire concert.
After Sussex Records folded, Bill Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975. His first album release with the label, 'Making Music', included the single "She's Lonely", which was featured in the film 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar' along with "She Wants to (Get on Down)". During the next three years he released an album each year with 'Naked & Warm' in 1976, Menagerie in 1977 and 'Bout Love' in 1978.
Due to problems with Columbia and being unable to get songs approved for his album, Bill concentrated on joint projects from 1977 to 1985, including "Just the Two of Us", with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., which was released during June 1980 and won a Grammy on 24th February, 1982. Bill Withers next did "Soul Shadows" with the Crusaders, and "In the Name of Love" with Ralph MacDonald, the latter being nominated for a Grammy for vocal performance.
In 1982, Bill Withers was a featured vocalist on the album, "Dreams in Stone" by French singer Michel Berger. This record included one composition co-written and sung by Bill Withers, an upbeat disco song about New York City entitled "Apple Pie." The album was not released in North America, although it contains several songs about America.
In 1985 came Watching You Watching Me, which featured the Top 40-rated R&B single "Oh Yeah", and ended Bill Withers’s business association with Columbia Records. Bill Withers stated in interviews that a lot of the songs approved for the album, in particular, two of the first three singles released, were the same songs which were rejected in 1982, hence contributing significantly to the eight-year hiatus between albums. Bill Withers also stated it was frustrating seeing his record label release an album for Mr. T, an actor, when they were preventing him, an actual singer, from releasing his own. He toured with Jennifer Holliday in 1985 to promote what would be his final studio album. His disdain for Columbia's A&R executives or "blaxperts", as he termed them, trying to exert control over how he should sound if he wanted to sell more albums, played a part in his decision to not record or re-sign to a record label after 1985, effectively ending his performing career, even though remixes of his previously recorded music were released well after his 'retirement'.
Finding musical success later in life than most, at 32, he has said he was socialized as a 'regular guy' who had a life before the music, so he did not feel an inherent need to keep recording once he fell out of love with the industry. He has also stated that he does not miss touring and performing live and does not regret leaving music behind.
In 1988, a new version of "Lovely Day" from the 1977 Menagerie album, entitled "Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)" and remixed by Ben Liebrand, reached the Top 10 in the United Kingdom, leading to Bill Withers' performance on the long-running Top of the Pops that year. The original release had reached number seven in the UK in early 1978, and the re-release climbed higher to number four.
In 1987, Bill Withers received his ninth Grammy Award nomination and on 2nd March, 1988, his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for the re-recording of "Lean on Me" by Club Nouveau on their debut album Life, Love and Pain, released in 1986 on Warner Bros. Records.
In 1996, a portion of his song "Grandma's Hands" was sampled in the song "No Diggity" by BLACKstreet, featuring Dr. Dre. The single went to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold 1.6 million copies and won a Grammy in 1998 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
In 2007, "Lean on Me" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
On 26th January, 2014, at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection, a nine-disc set featuring Bill Withers's eight studio albums, as well as his live album Live at Carnegie Hall, received the "Best Historical" Grammy Award (in a tie with The Rolling Stones' "Charlie Is My Darling - Ireland 1965.") The award was presented to Leo Sacks, who produced the collection, and the mastering engineers Mark Wilder, Joseph M. Palmaccio and Tom Ruff.
On 18th April, 2015, Bill Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder.
On 1st October, 2015, there was a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall in his honor, featuring Aloe Blacc, Ed Sheeran, Dr. John, Michael McDonald and Anthony Hamilton recreating his 1973 concert album, Live at Carnegie Hall, along with other Bill Withers material. Bill Withers was in attendance and spoke briefly onstage.