Withers wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have become inspirational and love anthems, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “Lean On Me,” was performed at the presidential inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Ivanka Trump paid tribute to the singer Friday morning.
His death comes as the public has drawn inspiration from his music during the coronavirus pandemic. Health care workers, teachers, artists and more have posted their own renditions of “Lean on Me” to help get through the difficult times of the international crisis.
‘The last African-American Everyman’
William Harrison Withers Jr. overcame a childhood stutter in the humble coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. His parents divorced when he was 3, and Withers mom headed to the nearby city of Beckley to raise her six kids. He would eventually leave home, the baby of those six, to join the Navy at 17.
He spent nine years in the service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles. He initially came to the city of stars to return to his aircraft building roots. Eventually, music would become his calling. He bought a guitar at a pawn shop and recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract.
In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, he put out his first album, “Just As I Am,” with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm. It had the hits “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film “Days of Wine and Roses.” He was photographed on the cover, smiling and holding his lunch pail.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” was originally released as the B-side of his debut single, “Harlem.” But radio DJs flipped the disc and the song climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard charts and spent a total of 16 weeks in the top 40.
Withers went on to generate more hits a year later with the inspirational “Lean On Me,” the menacing “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)” and the slinky “Use Me” on his second album, “Still Bill.”
Later came the striking “ Lovely Day,” co-written with Skip Scarborough and featuring Withers holding the word “day” for almost 19 seconds, and “Just The Two Of Us,” co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter. His “Live at Carnegie Hall” in 1973 made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
“The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that,” Sting said in “Still Bill,” a 2010 documentary of Withers.
Besides his knack for folksy soul music, his disposition and down-home presentation and storytelling connected with audiences across the world.
“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” musician and band leader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
Withers is survived by his wife Marcia Johnson and children Todd and Kori.
Sign Bill Withers' online guestbook here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.