Bill Withers hadn’t released a new song of his own in decades, but even before he died at age 81 of cardiac problems on Monday, the soul singer was on the minds of many people amid the globe’s current viral crisis. Apartment buildings full of people in social isolation and hospital rooms of health-care workers sang his 1972 classic, “Lean on Me.” For weeks, YouTube listeners of “Lovely Day” left messages like “As I write this, we are in the middle of the corona virus pandemic. I need some inspiration. Thanks Bill,” and “THIS SONG IS GOING TO GET ME THRU COVID19!!”
To turn to Bill Withers for solace has long been a reflex for millions. His songs have so suffused our communal space—churches, kids’ shows, supermarkets—that they seem older than the ’70s and ’80s, like they’re hymns. Music as widely consoling as his always runs a risk of overuse and misuse, and the popular reinterpretations of him range from outstanding instrumentals to Will Smith’s hammy dad rap to an Austin Powers parody I wish I could forget. But there was an edge to Withers. He had songs about mutilated soldiers and suicidal alcoholics, and he critiqued the music industry he walked away from soon after he conquered it. Withers was too great a talent and too independent an individual to be eclipsed by his own influence, and his legacy underlines the idea that comfort need not mean numbness, schmaltz, or complacency.
He certainly had an unusual career arc. Withers was in his 30s when he started getting serious about music—and he didn’t stay serious about it for all that long. Born in poor and rural West Virginia to a coal-miner father who died when Withers was 13, he grew up amid rank segregation. As soon as he was of age, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served for nine years. His post-military gigs included delivering milk and working an assembly line. The cover of his 1971 debut album, Just as I Am, shows him holding a lunch pail on a break from the factory; he once recalled of the shoot, “So guys are in the back yelling, ‘Hey Hollywood!’”
That album arose from a mix of ambition, impulse, and extraordinary talent. Inspired by seeing the singer Lou Rawls perform—and moreover, by noting the money and romantic attention Rawls got for it—Withers bought a used guitar, taught himself to play it, and recorded some demos. They impressed the music exec Clarence Avant, who set Withers up with the pivotal Memphis bandleader Booker T. Jones to cut an album. “The fact is we are born into the situations we were born into,” Withers said in a 2014 WNYC interview, looking back on his early life. “One day you … try to do something with yourself. The best advice anybody ever gave me was very simple: Go make something out of yourself.”
A track from his first studio sessions, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” would rightly launch Withers to orbit. For all the covers the song has spawned over the years, the original recording remains stunning. Withers’s voice—round, rich, and reverberating—is central and godlike. The arrangement seems to drift and coalesce. The overall effect matches the lyrical conceit about loneliness that moves like weather. In obvious ways, the song rates as “easy listening,” yet it also shows Withers’s genius for graceful extremity. Only a songwriter with a certain bravery and trust in the listener would cast those endless-seeming ripples of “I know / I know / I know.”
Many of his best moments are like that one: stark, graphical, almost confrontational musical choices that don’t disrupt the song’s spell but pull you further into it. There’s the lengthy “daaaay” of “Lovely Day.” There’s the acidic but perceptive take on submissive love on “Use Me.” There’s his knack for bold imagery, whether used for affection means in “Grandma’s Hands” or for political ones in “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” And there’s “Lean on Me,” a song whose gentleness survives and is boosted by brief, jolting tempo changes. Some radio stations truncate the end of that song, when Withers says “Call me” 14 times. What are they thinking?
Withers’s last hit was 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” a jaunty duet with Grover Washington Jr. The backstory is another example of how Withers’s sweet soul sounds often came with a hidden thorn. Withers had bristled at the manipulations of his record company, Columbia, for years, so he went to work with Washington, who was on a rival label. “Just the Two of Us” was “a ‘kiss my ass’ song to Columbia,” he told Rolling Stone decades later. He’d use his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015 to joke that “A&R” stands for “antagonistic and redundant.”
That induction speech is worth watching for a sense for how inspiringly and cannily Withers lived his life. He checked out of the music industry after 1985—the only original material since then came on a 2004 Jimmy Buffett album—and seemed quite happy raising a family in retirement. Onstage at the Hall of Fame ceremony, he was quick with jokes and jabs directed both at the contemporary pop scene and at his own old age. The impression he gave was of having willfully taken charge of his life as his songs took on lives of their own. “It’s been a wonderful odd odyssey with ups, downs, and sometimes screw-me-arounds,” he said, before acknowledging the varied pains his music had so often soothed: “We all know about those.”