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

Thoreau said– most men live lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.” ~Bill Withers

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 via

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.

“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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