Songwriter Bill Withers, who recorded his breakthrough single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in 1971, gives a candid and fascinating interview on the pain of creation and why he gave up recording and performing.
There’s something special about encountering your musical heroes, listening to them speak and discovering that they’re just as self-effacing, unsure, and yes, quite human as most of us. Somehow, I’d always known that Bill Withers would be at the top of that list. From his unassuming manner and simple dress, to his equally uncomplicated responses to myriad questions in “The Great Songwriters” episode about his life and short yet prolific career, Withers approaches songwriting much in the same fashion — without overthinking it.
“Virtuosity is not your friend when you’re trying to communicate a simple thought like a song,” Withers says when initially asked about his approach to songwriting. “Very few songs come from Juilliard graduates.”
It’s impossible to fathom how in 1971, a then 33-year-old Black man from Slab Fork, Virginia, born into a family of coal miners, could go on to become one the greatest American songwriters of all time. For Withers, it was the only thing he could think to do to avoid a life of complacency and not belonging.
His lyrics managed to resonate with every shy and awkward kid who just felt out of place, like they didn’t belong or could never find a home within the very place where he or she was born.
“There’s a certain romance in the memory,” recalls Withers as he reflects on his upbringing, “but only because I have the luxury of knowing that I don’t have to go back.” His lyrics managed to resonate with every shy and awkward kid who just felt out of place, like they didn’t belong or could never find a home within the very place where he or she was born: “I was born leaving!”
Hearing Withers unpack the inspiration behind his now-timeless classics is worth the peek behind the curtain, for it only makes the songs richer and that much more meaningful. With “Grandma’s Hands,” he speaks candidly about the indelible influence that his grandmother had on him as a child. On his 1973 “Live at Carnegie Hall” album, he prefaces the song by reflecting warmly about his grandmother and the times they spent together while at church: “The first responsibility I ever had was to take care of my grandmother, make sure she got everywhere OK. And at that time I was maybe five or six years old.”
A stalwart fundamentalist, he recalls how much the music he experienced while at church left such a tremendous impression on him: “The reverend would get the feeling so good he’d just hit himself all upside the head with the drumstick!” Born an asthmatic stutterer, Withers didn’t have many people to turn to who encouraged him. His grandmother was the exception. She provided sanctuary, someone who would nurture his gifts.
As a backdrop for “Lean on Me,” Withers recalls another childhood memory while swimming in a creek with other children — a place designated for Blacks only. When he witnessed what had appeared to be a teenager drowning, he jumped in to save his life, only to learn that it was a ruse plotted by the kid to drown Withers. Though young, Bill was surrounded by people he had known all his life, it was an old wino, a complete stranger, who rushed in to save both their lives.
Withers’ inherent modesty was apparent from the start. The cover of his debut album, “Just As I Am,” depicts an average blue-collar man with a lunch box. Yet with simple chords and straightforward lyrics, Withers harnessed his gifts, nurtured by his grandmother, and put them into songs that veered into souls and stormed the pop charts.
Withers, who died in 2020 at age 81, was long retired from performing and recording when this 2016 interview was conducted. He lived to see his songs and legacy carried on by his daughter, vocalist Kori Withers. What remained was a contentment that, despite his lack of confidence, he’d actually done OK for himself. “I pulled that off,” he says, modest to the end.
Shannon J. Effinger (Shannon Ali) has been a freelance arts journalist for more than a decade. Her writing on all things jazz and music regularly appears in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Village Voice, Bandcamp, Pitchfork, Jazziz and NPR Music. She made her cinematic debut as a featured critic in the documentary “Universe,” the rediscovered orchestral suite by Wayne Shorter, written more than 50 years ago for Miles Davis and left unrecorded and largely untouched until it was revisited by Davis’ protégé, the late trumpeter Wallace Roney. A native New Yorker, she currently resides and writes in Harlem.