Remembering Bill Withers

The Songwriters Hall of Fame was saddened to learn of the passing of 2005 inductee Bill Withers today.

Born William Harrison Withers Jr. in Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1938, he is one of America's premier singer/songwriters. Combining soulful warmth, a folksy, genuine feel, and an immediately recognizable voice, Withers has sung his way into the hearts of millions. He has an uncanny ability to say with profound honesty and great sensitivity, what so many of us feel in our hearts, but are unable to express in words.

His music and lyrics have a universal appeal, simple yet sophisticated. Bill attributes this to his own universality-as he describes it, a rural childhood and an urban-international adulthood. As the youngest of six children in a small coal-mining town, his youthful musical experiences were mainly in gospel quartets in small churches. During a nine year term in the Navy, which carried him throughout the Far East, Withers was inspired to try his hand at singing. Songwriting came as a result of futile searches for original songs that expressed what he felt.

After his discharge from the Navy, he moved to Los Angeles and recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract. In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, came such memorable hits as "Ain't No Sunshine," "Grandma's Hands" and in 1972, "Lean One Me" and "Use Me." Later would come the striking "Lovely Day," co-written with Skip Scarborough and "Just The Two Of Us," co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter.

Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, Withers received ASCAP’s Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award in 2006. A year after that, “Lean on Me” was entered into the Grammy Hall. He has additionally participated in several SHOF events, delighting the crowd at a special screening of the movie Trolls by appearing spontaneously, which resulted in guest Justin Timberlake bowing to him in awe. Withers enthralled students at a USC Thornton Master Session in 2016, speaking about his craft and process. The singer’s performance at the Zaire ’74 music festival, preceding Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s infamous Rumble in the Jungle heavyweight boxing match, is captured in the 2008 documentary film Soul Power.  Withers himself provided the focal point for the critically acclaimed 2009 documentary Still Bill. The most definitive collection of his work, Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums, was released in 2012. The nine-album box set won a Grammy for best historical recording.

"Lean On Me" has become a staple in churches, children's choirs and even prison choirs. It is often the first song that children learn to play on the piano because of what Bill calls "complex simplicity." Re-recorded and performed at the 1992 Presidential Inauguration festivities by Michael Bolton, it has quietly over the years seemingly become a part of the American fabric.

Wither's songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists including Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Johnny Mathis, Mick Jagger, Sting, Crystal Gale, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McCrae, Diana Ross, Grover Washington, Jr., Luther Vandross, Rick Braun and Boney James to name a few.

Artists that have recorded music written by Withers cover genres such as pop, jazz, country and western, classical, rhythm and blues, gospel and hip-hop.

Wither's music and unique voice continue to be used in television and radio commercials, motion pictures and television programs. His music has been sampled and covered by many hip-hop and rap artists of today, such as BlackStreet in the composition "No Diggity," Will Smith's version of "Just The Two Of Us," Black Eyed Peas' "Bridging The Gap" and Twista's "Sunshine" to name a few.

Withers is survived by his wife Marcia Johnson and their two children, Todd and Kori. 

Read about the SHOF Master Session at USC here:

Read about the Trolls special screening here: