The Early Years – Influences
“What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” – Bill Withers.
Bill Withers came from a small coal mining town in Slab Fork, West Virginia. His father passed when he was twelve and he was raised by his mother and his grandmother. Growing up, he lived during the times of segregation near the tracks, you either lived on the “colored” side or you lived on the “white side.” When he was asked about growing up during segregation.
To Bill it didn’t matter. His mother bought a house right next to the tracks on the white side. His attitude about this was, “If you could stand the humor in it, everybody comes out of the coal mines black in a coal mining community.”
“This kind of work can put you in a dangerous situation.”
He sums it by saying that where he lived, people had to have a certain trust and people really become necessary when working in this such dangerous environment. Segregation didn’t matter as much in the small town he lived in. What mattered was people helping each other as a community.
As a kid, Bill had a bad stutter which made it hard to fit in at times, to him, the music and the movies were the outside connection to the world. when he played with the white kids, he listened to Little Jimmy Dickens and Bonnie guitar. When he played with the black kids, he was introduced to the blues and church music. In his mind, all of these outside elements shaped him into the person he became. He was interested in the music, because he found it inspiring.
Everyone needs background music in their lives
He didn’t want to work in the coal mines with all the droning sounds around him. So he made the decision to join the Navy after graduating high school. He was in the Army for nine years. It was during this time period that he started writing and recording music. After he left the Navy, he moved to Los Angeles to start his music career. Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night.
His Music Career
When he debuted with the song “Ain’t No Sunshine”, he refused to resign from his full-time job. He believed the music business is a fickle industry. During this time, he worked with “Sussex Records” with Booker T. Jones and released “Just as I Am”, which features Stephen Stills on lead guitar. At the 14th annual Grammy Awards, on Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The track had already sold over one million copies. During a hiatus from touring, he worked on other projects and recorded his second album, “Still Bill”. The single, “Lean on Me” went to number one the week of July 8, 1972.
It was Withers’ second gold single with confirmed sales in excess of three million. His follow-up, “Use Me” released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place on October 12, 1972. His performs at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972. It’s released as the live album “Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall” on November 30, 1972. During this time, he wrote and produced songs for other artists. Projects with Gladys Knight & the Pips. He performed with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King in Zaire. It happened four weeks prior to the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Foreman and Ali.
Due to problems with Columbia and being unable to get songs approved for his album, he concentrated on joint projects from 1977 to 1985, including “Just the Two of Us”, with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., which was released during June 1980. It won a Grammy on February 24, 1982.
He walks away from music
After a certain point in his career, Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career. He did it entirely of his own volition, and never looked back. There were more factors but mostly because he felt that music was becoming more about image and not talent. Music wasn’t poetry to him anymore.
Life beyond music
He didn’t like the A/R guys telling him he couldn’t do songs without horns, chicks and more over the top elements. He said he learned a lot from those days and decided to walk away. With Wither’s being the sole writer of most of his material, he gets half of every dollar his catalog generates. He currently works on small projects and owns a publishing company. He licenses his music out for commercials, tv shows and with his wife, they invest in real estate.