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Soul and R&B Icon, Bill Withers, Passes at 81
By Brian W. Carter, Contributing Writer
Published April 9, 2020

In this June 21, 2006 file photo, singer-songwriter Bill Withers poses in his office in Beverly Hills, Calif. Withers, who wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” died in Los Angeles from heart complications on Monday, March 30, 2020. He was 81. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Bill Withers name is attached to music, and likewise, music is attached to him.

The list is never-ending of artists who have covered his songs including Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, Nancy Wilson, Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, Maroon 5, Sting, Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger to name a few. You can add to that impressive roster artists who have sampled Withers music like Jay-Z, Akon, Kayne West, Tupac Shakur, Fatboy Slim, DMX and BlackStreet into hip-hop hits.

Wither’s music has been used in feature films such as “Jerry Maguire,” “Jackie Brown,” “The Bodyguard,” “Girls Trip,” “American Beauty,” “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “The Heat,” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” His music has also been featured on television on shows such as “Scandal,” “Dancing with The Stars,” “American Idol,” “CSI,” “BULL,” “Snowfall,” “The Simpsons” and “The Prodigal Son.”

Withers passed away on Monday, March 30, from a heart condition, leaving the entertainment industry and the world mourning his loss. The lasting comfort—his indelible legacy to music and a song library that is synonymous with the memories of millions of his fans.

He was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, the youngest of six children to father, William, a miner, and Mattie, a maid. He was raised in Beckley, which was a coal mining country and was 13-years-old when his father died. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Navy and served for nine years. It was during this time when he began singing and writing songs.

Courtesy Photo

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1967, Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation. He self-financed his demos, which featured arranger and keyboardist, Ray Jackson of the Watts 103rd Street Band.

Jackson introduced Withers to Forrest Hamilton, who then introduced Withers to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records, who tapped Booker T. Jones to produce Wither’s debut album.

“Just As I Am” included the Grammy-winning “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands.” His debut album was a success and he assembled the remaining members of the Watts 103rd Street Band for U.S. and international tours.

His second album, “Still Bill,” is held in high-esteem and delivered mainstay hits such as “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” with “Bill Withers Live at Carnegie” following soon after. After releasing “+’Justments” in 1974, Withers severed ties with Sussex and signed with Columbia. The following albums “Making Music, Making Friends” in 1975 brought more classics in “Hello Like Before” and “Make Love to Your Mind.” In 1976, Withers’ “Naked & Warm” produced the love song, “City of the Angels”; “Menagerie” in 1977 brought “Lovely Day” and in 1979, “Bout Love” released the single “Don’t It Make It Better,” all of which continued his top-charting success.

Withers received four Grammy nominations and won Best R&B Song for “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington, Jr. In 1984, he received another Grammy nomination for “In The Name Of Love” with Ralph MacDonald. That year also marked Withers’ final project for Columbia with “Watching You, Watching Me” and the R&B chart single, “Oh Yeah.”

In 1988, the remix of “Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)” hit #4 on the British charts and Withers performed on the premier British chart show, “Top of the Pops.” Also, that year, he was presented with his third Grammy (and ninth nomination) for Club Nouveau’s interpretation of “Lean on Me.”

In 2014, Legacy Recordings’ box set of all nine of Withers albums, The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums, released in late 2012, won a Grammy for Best Historical Recording. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2006 with the Society’s Rhythm and Soul Heritage Award, presented to ASCAP members who have had a major impact on the legacy of Rhythm and Soul music.

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Withers’ additional honors include multiple Million-aires citations from Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI); a Soul Train Hall of Fame award; two NAACP Image awards, induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and a Clio award. In 2007, “Lean On Me” was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the 2015 Class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and in 2017, he received the prestigious International award of the Ivor Novello Awards in England.

The three-time Grammy Award winner’s family released the following statement, “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the family statement read.

“As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

“I am saddened by the passing of my dear friend Bill Withers,” said Danny J. Bakewell, Sr. executive publisher & chairman of Bakewell Media.

“It is particularly ironic that Bill would pass away at this time from an ailment that has nothing to do with the Coronavirus. As the entire country, if not the world and all those on the front line (doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers etc.) find comfort, motivation and inspiration in his song ‘Lean On Me’ and we all seek an end to this pandemic and can all enjoy a ‘Lovely Day’ again.”

Many celebrities, politicians and organizations took to social media to express their condolences and give thanks to Withers and his contributions, not only to music, but humanity.

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“I am among the millions of fans around the world who are mourning the loss of a musical genius and Rhythm & Blues legend: the incomparable Bill Withers. Withers’ music is a part of the soundtrack of our lives. He chronicled the joy of deep and enduring love when he sang ‘Just the Two of Us,’ and voiced the pain of profound heartache when he sang ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’ He lifted our spirits when he declared that today would be a ‘Lovely Day,’ and inspired strength and hope when he sang ‘Lean on Me.’ Bill Withers’ Grammy Award-winning, melodic masterpieces have withstood the test of time and endeared him to generations of fans – from the Silent Generation to Millennials and Gen Z. Any person who has an appreciation for authentic, soul-stirring music cherishes the work of Bill Withers. His induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) are a testament to his talent and creative genius. We cannot thank him enough for his contributions to music, entertainment, and American culture.”—Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-43)

“What a poignant writer whose songs are more relevant than ever right now. May music always bring us together! Rest in paradise to the magnificent #BillWithers”—Alicia Keys

“It was 2011 and @courtneybvance took me to one of the best concerts in my life: #sade & #billwithers. I can still hear him singing his heart out on stage. Now he’ll sing in our hearts forever. God bless you & keep you. Your anthems will be sung loud and strong today and always.”—Angela Bassett

“Aw man, Bill Withers was really the greatest. Grandma’s Hands, Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me, Use Me Up, Just The Two Of Us and obviously Lovely Day are some of the best songs of all time. My heart really hurts for him, it reminds me of playing records with at my grandma’s house.” —Chance The Rapper

“Rest in power, what a huge loss. Thank you for a catalogue we will lean on for generations to come. In the words of his family’s statement, ‘he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.’”—National Urban League

“#BillWithers thank you for all your contributions to society, everything you did on and off records to make everyday a #LovelyDay. #RestInPower” —NAACP

Categories: Celebration of Life | Entertainment | Music
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