It’s been 40 years since Bill Withers introduced his homespun philosophy of life and love on his debut album “Just As I Am.” On that record was GRAMMY® award-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which is ranked no. 280 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Great Songs of All Time.
The album also featured what has undoubtedly become the standard for all songs written about one’s grandparents — “Grandma’s Hands.” Among other musicians on that seminal album were Stephen Stills on guitar — yes, he of Crosby Stills Nash and Young/”Woodstock” fame. And Booker T. Jones produced, arranged and played keyboards on the album.
That album’s 40-year anniversary was a cause for celebration at a recent Grammy Museum-sponsored event. After an opening that featured a few snippets from the exceptional and revealing biographical documentary about his life, “Still Bill”, fans got to hear Withers wax philosophical about the many and varied high points in and influences on his songwriting career.
Ever heard of Slab Fork? Slab Fork, West Virginia, that is? Probably not unless you knew that’s where Withers was born 73 years ago. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17. He arrived in L.A. in 1967 — and he’s been writing classics ever since.
At the celebration, Withers told a few insightful stories, one of the most telling about how the so-called “Godfather of Black Music,” Clarence Avant (who was at the event, content to sit incognito in the back row of the Museum’s Clive Davis Auditorium) founded Sussex Records in 1969 and signed newcomer Bill Withers to the label shortly thereafter.
There was another story about how Withers got called back from being laid off as an airplane mechanic on the same day he would be appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Guess which he chose?
His second album, “Still Bill” from 1972, yielded two more classics, “Lean on Me” and “Use Me.” And 1977’s “Menagerie” had “Lovely Day.” Later in his career came “Just the Two of Us” with the late Grover Washington, Jr.; that song won the best R&B song GRAMMY in 1981.
Withers divulged the pain of being a stutterer, saying he was taunted as a child. Minutes later, he evoked a lot of laughter with a couple of priceless ‘Withersisms,’ including “One of the most fun things is to be a fool over woman!” And another zinger: “All the people I have told to go to hell and none of them have gone yet.”
Surely one of the most oft-asked questions of the reclusive Withers is why he isn’t on tour. To that query, he responded, “Physically, I know how that would work …” A few minutes later, he signaled to the moderator that he’s through talking by announcing, “So, this is fun to talk to you but I was sleepy before I came to you … I appreciate you all coming …!”
Now to the casual eye, it appeared that the 73-year-old songwriting titan is in decent shape. So one can surmise only that, in addition to a few unseen infirmities, Withers must be in a “been there, done there” place in his life, rather preferring younger folks — like his talented daughter Kori Withers — to bring new meaning to his songs.
With her three-piece band in tow — piano, bass and percussion — Kori opened her tribute set by telling the audience in her soft voice, “How you’re hanging with my dad? That’s how we hang at home …” before launching into what she said is one of her absolute faves by her dad, “You Can’t Just Smile It Away.” Then came another favorite in “Lonely Town, Lonely Street.”
And now a confession: That no matter how many times she hears his music at the Rite Aid or the supermarket, Kori doesn’t think she will “never be able to comprehend the enormity of my next song.” Wildly anticipating “Lean On Me, the audience began wildly clapping — and they were not disappointed by her upbeat spin on the tune.
Given its almost spiritually high lyrics, Kori added, “The song not only makes me emotional — it confuses me,” she says, “because my dad would prefer to be by himself!”
So if Bill’s touring days are over, well, all right … ’cause all we need do is listen to the recorded lyrics of a Bill Withers’ song and it immediately becomes apparent why he’s been a much-loved, much-covered artist for 40 years — and why he doesn’t need to tour.
Because through his songs, he is just as he is — still Bill.