BY JOY CHILDS
Say the name “Bill Withers,” and most can sing all the lyrics to his biggest songs from the ’70s and ’80s: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.”
But what else do we know about Withers? That he was an aircraft toilet installer? Or an “asthmatic stutterer”? Or that his singing career didn’t begin until he was in his early 30s?
“Still Bill: An Evening of Film and Song” (2010), the 90-minute documentary that recently screened at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, examines these and other lesser-known facts about the life and times of the man who is hands down one of most brilliantly honest American songwriter/singers of our times – as his 2005 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame will attest.
The “evening” began with Center resident company producer, Wren T. Brown, introducing the film, five years in the making. We see Withers as family man and as loyal friend to his Slab Fork, W. Va., hometown.
Interspersed between scenes of that town’s high school reunion and a Brooklyn tribute to him (where he comes onstage and surprises veteran bassist Cornell Dupree on “Grandma’s Hands”) is vintage footage of Withers’ performances on “American Bandstand,” “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
There he is with his M.B.A. wife (who manages his business affairs) and his daughter Kori, living a very simple life and celebrating a 70th birthday party at his Hollywood Hills home in a very low-key manner.
We learn that his son Todd is a law student. Most important for fans, we learn about his personal and the professional struggles, which may have led him, at the height of his career in 1985, to walk away from it all. And we find out where he’s been since: not performing, mostly chillin’ in and around home.
“Still Bill” really is a must-see for anyone who wants to know what makes Bill still.
One of the last times he performed publicly was with his daughter Kori in a duet of “Ain’t No Sunshine” at his 2005 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
And once the film is over, it’s really daughter Kori, whose performance of her original songs, makes you wonder about her own songwriter/singer career. Her after-the-film,10-song set – and tight backup band – showcase her mother’s funk influences, her brother’s classic influences, and her dad’s songwriting values and influences.
An interview with her reveals as much about her as a songwriter/singer as it does about him. She grew up in L.A., where she graduated from Harvard-Westlake. And then it was off to Columbia University, where she majored in English literature. Along with about 25 others, she completed graduate work in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University – a program of just 25 students.
Her songwriter/singer journey began with family, at home.
SENTINEL: What’s your earliest memory of Kori as a singer?
KW: I always just sang to myself. My brother and I, we weren’t too into TV or things like that. We could watch some TV. We watched ‘Sesame Street’ and stuff like that. That’s probably the earliest memory … Sesame Street. I was just singing some of those jams this week, actually, because ‘Sesame Street’ was groovin’, and there’s a song I was gonna do – something my keyboard player was playing reminded me of … All the cartoons had songs, the Smurfs, so that’s probably the earliest . . . and then my brother played the piano and he’s older than me, so he always was very into music and he loves really classic singers like Ella, Sinatra . . .
SENTINEL: So I would imagine that a daughter of Bill Withers grew up listening to all types of music?
KW: Well, the thing is, my dad does not really listen to too much music, nor does he get into a record collection. He doesn’t know what CDs he has. But we had his records, and I had a little record player, and I knew where dad’s albums were, and I would pull them out and listen to them. And that’s what I would listen to in my room before I was old enough to have other music.
And then my mom had worked for record companies. So she had a lot of promotional stuff and she had a record collection. She was really into music. So she listened to the Gap Band all the time in the car, and Prince. She liked dance music, fun stuff. She had the Eagles ’cause she was working at their label. She had Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder … and if she saw me looking at something in the cabinet, she’d say . . ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great record!’ She’d kinda let me know what was the stuff! And I listened to Aretha, and the Eagles. I remember there was a solid set of Stevie Wonder, my dad, Roberta Flack, that I listened to all the time. . . and this was before there were tapes.
SENTINEL: Now what are a couple of pieces of advice that your dad gave you about songwriting, about what makes a good song?
KW: I think that he sort of taught me about what makes a good song by pointing out what he heard that wasn’t working in things on the radio and TV. He would say things like, ‘People have a problem with simplicity . . . Sometimes people are afraid to just say things plainly and they feel like they have to either make it more complicated,’ or he would say, ‘People use all the clichés, lyrical clichés, like Baby, I love you, I’ll always be true.’
Things like that he would say, that would suggest that you should try to be more original. I think originality was something he stressed a lot, like when something is stock, or the genre, or when people would just repeat the same bass line, same style, same thing and he talked about coming up with a phrase that meant something and that someone hadn’t said before.
I knew he got excited by finding a way to say something that was plain as day that was universally relevant but that hadn’t been said like that … and that was the kind of thing he was always searching for. Like finding that in himself. He was always open to that kind of creativity of finding those phrases.
SENTINEL: Which of your dad’s songs are your favorites?
KW: Oh, I couldn’t do that! But I know which songs of his my songs relate to. Like “Blue Blues,” there’s a song called “In My Heart” that he did.
SENTINEL: It’s on one of his later albums?
KW: No, on his first . . . and he holds a lot of notes on that, holds long notes … [she sings it] and there’s another song: “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” which is a lesser-known but gorgeous, gorgeous song [she sings it] . . . And I listened to that song over and over and over again. I love that song …
SENTINEL: Who are some of your musical influences outside your dad?
KW: Definitely Aretha … Well, there’s that generation and then there’s contemporary … I’m so glad that I went to college and got to go to a different city and that was kind of at the end of when hip-hop was a little bit more substantive. And I remember when Jill Scott’s first record came out – I think I was a senior in college and it just totally floored me … and she just came out with this gorgeous voice and great songwriting and was sexy and feminine. … I listened to that a lot.
SENTINEL: The record I like is “Living my life like it’s golden, golden . . .”!
KW: That’s later. But the first record, “Who Is Jill Scott” – I mean that’s like the perfect record. I’ve loved Erykah Badu for years … she’s amazing. I mean there’s lots of stuff I like [but] actual influences – I love James Taylor, songwriting, has the phrasing and the plaintive, sort of just saying way – like my dad.
KW: That’s the second music I heard after my dad that really deeply impacted me. That’s one thread and my dad, and my brother is another thread, and my mom is another thread. … [James Taylor] was the second in the line … and then the female equivalent to that would be Joni Mitchell …
After the interview, Kori makes it clear that she doesn’t want to throw a bunch of songs together just to release a CD. She’s taking her time – writing songs, doing limited gigs here and there, like at the Nate Holden.
But it’s a sure bet that when she does lift off, fans of her dad will be pleased that they’re able to discern his values – and talents – in her songs.