Of all the artists we could describe as underrated, perhaps Bill Withers is the most underrated of them all. The gift of simplicity is one that so few people possess, and his music was timeless when he was alive, and will continue to be so. He passed away earlier this week at the age of 81.
As the artist himself reflected: “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with.” It’s true to say that his influence is everywhere, with generations of artists from across the musical spectrum having covered his songs.
I remember getting a ten track greatest hits album on vinyl one Christmas – we called them LPs when I was a kid. “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Just The Two Of Us”, “Who Is He And What Is He To You?”, “Hello Like Before”, “Lean On Me” and of course the Blackstreet sampled “Grandma’s Hands”.
“Billy don’t you run so fast, might fall on a piece of glass, there might be snakes there in that grass…Grandma’s Hands.”
He seemed to be able to express so much, with so little.
Something of a reluctant star, he came to the fore relatively late following nine years in the US Navy, releasing his first album in 1970 – Just As I Am – at the age of 29. As a self-taught guitarist, he worked for the aircraft firm Boeing, and saved his money to book recording studio time.
Lean On Me, originally released in 1972, was performed at the inaugurations of two US Presidents – Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – but in reality, his songs aren’t those of Presidents, or Kings and Queens, his was the voice of the common man, of everyday people. He grew up in a West Virginia coal mining town as the youngest of six children and was mostly raised by his mother and grandmother after his father died.
In my college years I discovered Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall. If you get the chance, check it out. It’s a record that warms the soul. So few live performances translate well once they’re vacuum packed into the ones and zeros coded onto a CD or a digital stream. Simply put, Bill just had too much soul to control.
His career was relatively short in some ways as he stopped recording in 1985. He faded away from public life for the best part of three decades, but he never felt the need to continuously tour and avoided becoming a legacy artist. In recent years the BBC screened a documentary about his career – Still Bill (named after one of his album titles) – which showed him in good health and at ease with his legacy.
Rolling on a few years further I was also touched by his song Sweet Wanomi, which I heard for the first time shortly before my first daughter was born, so much so that I used to play it to her as a baby. And that’s the other great thing, his songs are easy to play on an acoustic guitar, simply structured but with an almost universal meaning and appeal. Lean On Me was the first song I learned to play on the piano, as a series of simple chords. Starting in C major, it rolls up the notes in three easy steps, C to Dminor to Eminor to F, and back down again. “Some – Times – In – My Life…”.
You just call on me brother, when you need a hand.
We all need somebody, to lean on.
I just might have a problem, that you understand.
We all need somebody, to lean on.
If we ever needed those words of humanity and love, it’s right now.
Be Still Bill, because you gave us so much.