Bill Withers, the influential US soul singer who wrote Lean on Me, Ain’t No Sunshine and Lovely Day has died aged 81 of heart complications, according to a statement from his family.
Withers wrote and recorded several other major hits including Use Me and Just the Two of Us, before retiring in the mid-1980s and staying out of the public eye.
He is survived by his wife Marcia Johnson and their two children, Todd and Kori. The family statement reads:
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. 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.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was among those paying tribute, writing: “Rest In Peace, maestro Bill Withers. What a legacy.” Chance the Rapper said Withers “was really the greatest”, while Chic’s Nile Rodgers described him as “class, class and more class”.
Withers’ songs are some of the most beloved in the American songbook. Ain’t No Sunshine is regarded as one of the all-time great breakup tracks, while Lean on Me, an ode to the supportive power of friendship, was performed at the inaugurations of presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Heavily influenced by the church hymns and gospel music of his childhood, it was his first and only No 1 single on the US Billboard pop charts, in 1972.
It has also become an anthem during the coronavirus outbreak, sung by schoolchildren and in impromptu balcony renditions to show support for one another. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka wrote on Twitter: “There is no more appropriate time to reflect on his words than now as we lean on each other.”
Just the Two of Us, another song of solidarity, was successfully covered by Will Smith and sampled by Eminem (as well as being spoofed by Bill Cosby and Mike Myers).
The joyous Lovely Day, with its signature 18-second-long held note, was his only UK Top 10 hit, reaching No 7 in 1977 and No 4 in 1988. Withers also won three Grammy awards from nine nominations and entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Born William Harrison Withers Jr in 1938, he faced a difficult childhood in Slab Fork, West Virginia. A stutter held him back from making friends, and, after his father died when Bill was 13, his grandmother helped to raise him. Withers would write a tribute to her with the song Grandma’s Hands from his 1971 debut album Just As I Am: “Grandma’s hands / Used to issue out a warning / She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast / Might fall on a piece of glass / Might be snakes there in that grass.’” The intro was memorably sampled by Blackstreet for their 1996 R&B classic, No Diggity.
Withers spent nine years in the US Navy before pursuing a career in music. After moving to Los Angeles in 1967, he found a job making toilet seats and recorded demos through the night. Possessed of a smooth and soulful baritone, he signed to Sussex Records and enlisted Booker T Jones to produce Just As I Am. That album spawned the hit Ain’t No Sunshine, which won Withers his first Grammy for best R&B song.
He then poured his experiences of growing up in Slab Fork, a tough coal-mining town with a strong community ethos, into Lean on Me.
His time with Sussex Records didn’t end well. “They weren’t paying me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “They looked at me and said, ‘So, I owe you some money, so what?’ I was socialised in the military. When some guy is smushing my face down, it doesn’t go down well.” He claims to have erased an entire album that he had recorded for the label in a fit of pique. “I could probably have handled that differently,” he said.
Withers signed with Columbia Records and married his second wife, Marcia Johnson, shortly afterwards, in 1976; she eventually became his manager. Withers continued having hit records with Columbia, including the laid-back and optimistic Lovely Day. After three albums in three years, Withers claimed Columbia’s head of A&R, Mickey Eichner, prevented him from going into the studio, leaving a gap of seven years between ’Bout Love (1978) and Watching You Watching Me (1985).
After the latter failed to chart, Withers went into early retirement. The 2009 documentary, Still Bill, explored his reasons for quitting the music industry and painted the picture of a fulfilled musician and human being. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Roger Ebert said: “[Withers] still lives and survives as a happy man. Still Bill is about a man who topped the charts, walked away from it all in 1985 and is pleased that he did.”