In the Spotlight: Bill Withers

Bill Withers in the mid-70s.


William Harrison Withers, Jr., July 4, 1938 in Slab Fork, WV


Soul, R&B, Blues, Funk, Adult Contemporary


Vocals, piano, guitar

Claims to fame:

  • One of the greatest soul singers of the '70s
  • Expertly combined elements of gospel, r&b, soul, jazz, and blues to create his own rootsy yet accessible sound
  • A warm and charismatic live performer
  • His hits "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" are among the most covered in pop history
  • Portrayed an smooth, upbeat yet street-smart persona, rooted in morality but also human

Early years:

Growing up the youngest of six children in a West Virginia coal mining family, young Bill tuned into music at an early age, especially in the local church. But after his father's death in in his early teens, Bill realized that immediate and steady employment was necessary to keep his family together. To that end, he joined the Navy at age 18, then upon release relocated to Los Angeles and infamously began working as a toilet assemblyman in a Boeing airplane plant. In the meantime, he shopped around demos and made a name for himself on the local club circuit. So heavily did Bill depend on a steady paycheck, in fact, that he kept his Boeing job even after being signed by independent label Sussex Records.


Sussex, which was distributed by Buddha, was smart enough to pair the young soul singer with Booker T.

of MGs fame, who immediately recognized Withers' mastery of Southern roots music. Members of the MGs sat in on his debut single, "Ain't No Sunshine," as well as admirer Stephen Stills on guitar; before long, the song sat in the Top Ten. An instant classic, it eventually sold a million copies and also garnered him a Grammy.

Bill immediately started touring, giving loose, relaxed but funky shows backed by the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, who had already tasted success with their "Express Yourself" and "Love Land." Two more hit albums followed, but Withers was soon done in by the business side of the record industry -- Sussex ran into tax problems and folded, and his new label, Columbia, had trouble selling his warm rootsiness in a disco world. Eventually, contract disputes with Sussex barred him from recording for anyone else for seven full years, but Bill managed to find a loophole, duetting with (among others) saxman Grover Washington Jr. on his smash "Just The Two of Us."

Later years:

Bill's legal troubles ended in 1985, allowing him to finally return to the studio, but by then pop radio was even further removed from his original vision; Withers focused instead on maintaining the legacy of his handful of enormous hits, devoting himself to his own family and managing his publishing company. However, an entire generation of R&B and hip-hop stars had grown up digging Bill's laid-back mixture of soul, gospel, and funk, and he found himself as much in demand for sampling and remixes as he'd been as a viable recording artist.

Although he's since made a few guest appearances over the years, most notably on Jimmy Buffett's equally laid-back 2004 album Licensed to Chill, he remains happy with his legacy as it is, contenting himself to the very occasional concert tour.

Bill Withers awards and honors:

  • GRAMMY Awards (1971, 1981, 1987)
  • Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005)
  • GRAMMY Hall of Fame (2007)
  • NAACP Image Award (1972)
  • ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Heritage Award (2006)
  • West Virginia Music Hall of Fame (2010)

Bill Withers facts and trivia:

  • Withers' "Grandma's Hands" was sampled heavily for Blackstreet's 1996 hit "No Diggity"
  • "Lean On Me" was a hit all over again in a pop-reggae version by Club Nouveau in 1987
  • "Lean on Me" figured heavily in the Presidential campaigns of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama
  • Was once married to TV actress Denise Nicholas of "Room 222" and "In the Heat of the Night" fame
  • Is close friends with pioneering black comedians Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby
  • In 1974, performed during the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire
  • Has also been sampled by Akon, DMX, Fatboy Slim, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, and Tupac Shakur

Bill Withers hit songs and albums:

#1 hits

  • "Lean on Me" (1972)
  • "Lean on Me" (1972)
Top 10 hits
  • "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971)
  • "Use Me" (1972)
  • "Just the Two of Us" with Grover Washington, Jr. (1981)
  • "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971)
  • "Use Me" (1972)
  • "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" (1974)
  • "Make Love to Your Mind" (1975)
  • "Lovely Day" (1977)
  • "Just the Two of Us" with Grover Washington, Jr. (1981)
Adult Contemporary:
  • "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971)
  • "Lean on Me" (1972)
  • "Just the Two of Us" with Grover Washington, Jr. (1981)
  • "In the Name of Love" with Ralph MacDonald (1984)
#1 albums
  • Still Bill (1972)
Top 10 albums
  • Still Bill (1972)
  • Just as I Am (1971)
  • Live at Carnegie Hall (1973)
  • +'Justments (1974)
  • Making Music (1975)

Other notable Bill Withers recordings:

"Grandma's Hands," "Kissing My Love," "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)," "The Best You Can," "I'll Be with You," "Lonely Town/Lonely Street," "Let Me Be the One You Need," "My Imagination," "Let Us Love," "Friends of Mine," "I Don't Want You on My Mind," "I Want to Spend the Night," "Hello Like Before," "Tender Things," "I Wish You Well," "Harlem," "You Just Can't Smile It Away," "Steppin' Right Along," "You Try to Find a Love," "My Imagination," "Make Love to You," "Oh Yeah!," "All Because of You," "You," "Green Grass," "Heartbreak Road," "Make a Smile for Me," "Take It All in and Check It All Out"

Movie and TV appearances (movies in italics): "Soul Train" (1971, 1972, 1973, 1974), "The David Frost Show" (1971, 1972), "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (1971, 1972), "The New Bill Cosby Show" (1972), "American Bandstand" (1972, 1976, 1978, 1981), "Top of the Pops" (1972, 1988), "Flip" (1972), Save the Children (1973), "It's Lulu" (1973), "Saturday Night Live," (1976), "Dinah!" (1976), "The Midnight Special" (1977), "Tavis Smiley" (2010)

Covered by: The Jackson 5ive, Mick Jagger, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Tori Amos, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Mathis, Tom Jones, Club Nouveau, Starsailor, Barbra Streisand, Aaron Neville, Sting, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Herb Alpert, Fiona Apple, The Staple Singers, Georgie Fame, dc Talk, Kirk Franklin, Gil Scott-Heron, Joan Osborne, Al Jarreau, Melanie, John Waite, Hootie and the Blowfish, Will Smith, Eva Cassidy, The Persuasions, Mud, Tower of Power, Widespread Panic, Bonnie Tyler, Esther Phillips, Grace Jones, The Beautiful South, Better Than Ezra, David Cassidy, Horace Andy, Ken Boothe, Woven Hand, The Fantasy Band, Mark Eitzel, Adam Again, Will Young, Cae Gauntt, Marlena Shaw, Bobbi Humphrey, Dayna Kurtz, Cold Blood, The 2-4 Family, Rick Braun, Holly Golightly, Patricia Barber, Creative Source, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Liza Minnelli