Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

WITHERS, Bill

(b 4 July 1938, Slab Fork WV) Sweet soul singer and highly rated songwriter. the youngest of six children. His mother scrubbed floors for a living; he worked as a bricklayer, then spent nine years in US Navy, the first man in his family not to work in the coal mines, he said. He moved to the West Coast '67, made demo records of his songs and began recording for the Sussex label in 1970, first pro appearance in public in mid-'71 at age 33, a late start because of shyness and a stammer, both cured by the Navy, the latter partly by speech therapy. 'Ain't No Sunshine' was a no. 3 pop hit '71 and won a Grammy, from top 40 LP Just As I Am, produced by Booker T. Jones; Still Bill '72 was no. 4 LP including 'Lean On Me', an ode to friendship and a no. 1 hit, and 'Use Me', which reached no. 2. Eleven hit singles through '77 were all written by Withers except one. He was a natural, who wrote unusually interesting songs because he was untrained, and didn't know how to imitate everybody else. Further albums included 2-disc Live At Carnegie Hall '73 and 'Justments '74.

Sussex went broke, and Withers could have bought back his work, but Columbia scooped up the lot. The bigger company produced studio-bound work with electric pianos and other clichés, albums including Making Music '75, Naked & Warm '76, top 40 Menagerie '77, 'Bout Love '79. He sang on Grover Washington's album Winelight '81 including 'Just The Two Of Us', co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter, a no. 2 hit with Washington on sax. The single was on Elektra, the track included in a hits compilation on Columbia; it was a big hit with just the kind of song he had earlier avoided writing. Watching You Watching Me '85 was another top 200 album, and then he quit. 

Record companies both frustrated him and made him rich, a CBS A&R man once suggesting he cover Elvis Presley's 'In The Ghetto'. Withers gave feisty interviews on the occasion of the reissue of Just As I Am in 2005, reclaimed several tapes of unreleased material in 2007, and was the subject of a documentary film, Still Bill, after directors Alex Vlack and Damani Baker tracked him down in 2007 and followed him around collecting over 350 hours of footage.