We’re used to musicians announcing their retirement, quickly followed by their ‘comeback’ tour and album. But when Bill Withers quit in 1985 he was true to his word, performing just one final gig for a prodigious fee. So anyone under 50 is unlikely to have seen him perform and may be familiar only with a few of his hits. It would be a shame not to dig deeper and discover more.
Withers was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, one of six children and the first not to become a miner. Growing up in Jim Crow America, he later said that from age four he knew that if you were Black and used the white restroom, “they’d kill your father”.
After nine years in the navy, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in factories. Even after he started recording, Withers continued working until he was made redundant. The cover of his first album, Just As I Am, shows him in t-shirt and jeans on a break.
The Roots frontman Questlove describes Withers as, “a black everyman, a superb, sensitive, singersongwriter who understood, and was able to communicate, the life that most of us live”. Withers saved up to make his own demos, and was eventually signed in 1970.
He was teamed up to record with the legendary Booker T and some of the MGs, and Stephen Stills. That first album included Harlem, Ain’t No Sunshine and Grandma’s Hands. From the start, Withers subject matter and style was varied. I Can’t Write LeftHanded, is a powerful anti-war song where he speaks from the viewpoint of a wounded soldier in Vietnam.
And Who Is He (And What Is He To You) is a paranoid song about relationship insecurities. Withers recorded another three albums on the Sussex label, including +’Justments, a great break-up album that predated
Marvin Gaye’s Hear, My Dear. When the label collapsed he moved to Colombia.
Arguably his later output was inferior, although it did include tracks such as Lovely Day and Close To Me. Columbia refused to record or release much of his material, so after five albums the unhappy artist walked away. He couldn’t be persuaded to make another album. Instead, Withers recorded Just The Two Of Us with Grover Washington Jr, an ‘up yours’ song to Colombia and a couple of other collaborations.
Thereafter, as the Still Bill documentary shows, he only performed for pleasure. Withers was asked about his song-writing process, and his reply sums up exactly why music can be such a release from everyday life:
“I don’t really want to know too much about how I do it. Because then it’s not magic anymore. Early in my life I was an airline mechanic, so my life was full of, you know, you attach this to that…and that causes the other, and your life is full of rules…So the one magical thing for me is when something comes from somewhere and I don’t know where it came from. It just crossed my mind.”