THE ACCIDENTAL MUSICAL GENIUS WHO UP AND WALKED AWAY | BILL WITHERS

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Thoreau said– most men live lives of quiet desperation.

I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.

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–Bill Withers

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1974 — Muhammad Ali and singer/songwriter Bill Withers chat during the Zaire ’74 Music Festival that preceded the epic Ali vs. Foreman’Rumble in the Jungle’ fight on Oct. 30th, 1974. Other performers included– James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, the Fania All-Stars, Miriam Makeba and  Zairian musical artists, all chronicled in the 2008 film,’Soul Power’. When asked later if it felt like a moving, historic racial event at the time Withers recalled, “No. It was two big guys going to fight each other at four o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t this great intellectual pursuit. And there’s a certain reality to going someplace where there’s a dictator. You notice the disparity in the wealth.” And in regard to the African-American movement that was hapeening to re-discover their roots? “Awwww, come on, man. It wasn’t a great historical moment. Interesting, but that was that. No great spiritual experience. Mostly what everybody found out was–we had been shaped and transformed by American culture and the history we had here, and they had been shaped by whoever colonized their place. They weren’t speaking any African languages. We were speaking English and they were speaking French. How African is that?” — Photograph by © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis via

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Bill Withers was no natural born musician, or polished product of the recording industry. He was a simple man, a bit manic depressive he’d even tell you himself– and that may be why his plain spoken words, delivered so powerfully, pack the punch they do. The youngest of six kids, Withers was born in a bleak West Virginia town where coal mining was your best prospect.  He’d be the first man in his family to escape its grip.

Withers joined the Navy and got the hell outta there. It turned out to be a nine year hitch, and along the way picked up singing in bars wherever he found himself stationed. Later he picked up the guitar and taught himself a crude, but effect, playing style where he’d form simple barre chords and rhythms– this allowed him to passionately pound out songs without having to give much thought to his fingering– he could just slide his hand up and down the neck.

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“Bill played just enough guitar to do what he did– But, what he did was really good.”  –Craig McMullen, Bill Withers backing guitarist.  Withers openly admitted he was a hack on the guitar, but he managed to wrench more power and emotion out of his instrument than other, more accomplished, players. –Photograph by © Fin Costello

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After the Navy, Withers found himself working at an airplane assembly plant.  It was glamorous work– he was bolting toilets seats on planes.  He was also hanging out in LA clubs– mostly to meet girls. When he overheard how much a club owner was paying one of the acts– a light went off. “I wasn’t particularly interested in music, though I sat up when it was Lou Rawls or Little Willie John. Then one night this guy behind the bar was moaning that the performer was late and he said, ‘You know, I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t even show up on time!’ I thought, “They’re paying this guy $2,000 a week? He doesn’t even get up in the morning!” Withers got to honing his craft, and scraped up enough dough to cut a demo. His big break came when the small Sussex label agreed to put out his album– and hired the highly regarded Booker T. Jones as producer. Booker saw potential in Withers, even with as raw as his talent was, and drafted his own session band (The MG’s) to back him up.

Even after the release of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ Withers kept his day job. He later recalled, “I had been working at Weber Aircraft and then I got laid off. Then ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ started appearing on the radio. And it’s funny, I got two requests in the same day. A letter from my job, telling me I was called back to work. And a request to do ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson.” Bill Withers vulnerably revealed the essence of who he was that night when he told Johnny Carson, “I would like to say something that has not been said so much. I would like for music to be real for a change.”

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Bill Withers in concert. “In my lifetime, music went through a huge transition, to where the biggest music in the world was derivative. White people imitating black people. Some journalist got really insulted a while back, because he asked if Elvis had influenced me. Hell, no! To do what?” — Photograph by © Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Sony.

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In 1975, the label that had discovered and launched Bill Withers, Sussex, went belly up. CBS came along and bought out his album and recording rights for a paltry hundred grand. The relationship between Withers and CBS was strained. Sadly, long gone now were the days of his hard strummin’, foot poundin’, woeful, soulful tunes.  His recordings for CBS were over-produced, pandering pop songs that lacked much resemblance to his honest, early work.  1985 would mark his last original release– Bill Withers decided he was done. Fortunately, with over 250 artists eventually covering his tunes, he and his family would be able to live  comfortably off of the songwriting and licensing royalties for decades to come.  And he did it without caving in to the industry’s pressure for him to crank out ‘black’ music “with the horns and the three chicks.”

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1973 — Bill Withers featured in Playboy magazine

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“You gonna tell me the history of the blues? I am the goddam blues. Look at me. Shit. I’m from West Virginia, I’m the first man in my family not to work in the coal mines, my mother scrubbed floors on her knees for a living, and you’re going to tell me about the goddam blues because you read some book written by John Hammond? Kiss my ass.” –Bill Withers

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1970 — singer/songwriter Bill Withers — Photograph by David Redfern/Redferns

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1974 — Muhammad Ali, Bill Withers, and Don King at the ’74 Zaire Music Festival. — Photograph by © Jeffrey Levy-Hinte/Sony

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ca. 1970s, Los Angeles, CA — singer/songwriter Bill Withers — Image by © Jeff Albertson/Corbis

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19 thoughts on “THE ACCIDENTAL MUSICAL GENIUS WHO UP AND WALKED AWAY | BILL WITHERS

  1. this is crazy. i was having a conversation with a young lady last night about how it felt to walk away from music for a couple years and then start to get the cathartic itch again. she had still bill on netflix and we sat around talking about it. then i come here and see this today. good stuff.

  2. Excellent, thanks, I actually knew very little about him though I have always loved his music.
    Grandma’s Hands – that song is SO moving, makes me want to cry!

  3. Great article. Your blog is one of the best written, intelligent and focus’ed I’ve seen. Keep up the good work.

  4. Dear Jon,

    great post again. Always delightful reading your stuff.
    It was about time someone mentions Bill Withers.
    Many tks.
    Uwe

  5. Great article. A few photos & insights on his life I hadn’t seen before.
    “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is still such a strong and powerful protest song, every time I hear it I stop what I doing to listen.
    Great work again TSY!

  6. Brilliant! I never stop listening to Bill – such exquisite songs! Live At Carnegie Hall is surely the finest live album ever. And he knew when to walk away rather than become an embarassment – if only more artists would do so. Respect to Bill and thanks for the feature.

  7. My favorite song in the world “Lovely Day” – my mother loved it, and I in turn loved it. Listening to her sing it off key was a highlight. :)

  8. As much as I love Bill Withers’ music, I kind of feel like I have to mention some of the down side– he was rumoured to have badly battered his girlfriend at the time, Denise Nichols, who was an up and coming Black starlet.

    Apparently he beat her badly enough that she lost hearing in one ear and some vision, which led to a increased look into his personal life (which the uber-private Withers was not happy about)….

  9. Yes, one of the “few laid back men” with exert force.
    My all time favorite is “Live at the Carnegie Hall”, in vinyl as a double LP.

    “Lonely Town, lonely street” and the fabulous
    “World keeps going around” with that incredible appointing wah-wah guitar and that driving rhythm.

    Thank you for that post.

  10. Aint no Sunshine is still one of the most beautiful songs ever, imo. And it’s from the year of my birth, which is pretty cool =)

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  12. Thanks for this post. It’s surprising that Bill Withers isn’t as well known as other soul artists of the same era. ‘Use me’ is such a sexy song and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ is one of those classics that you can never tire of, like ‘Summertime’.

  13. I don’t think he’s as well known as other soul musicians because he’s not as good. He’s fine but he’s not one of the greats. He’s rated about where ought to be.

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