Soul legend Bill Withers dies at age 81

MGN Bill Withers

Legendary musician Bill Withers has passed away at age 81. Known for a string of iconic songs and albums that touched on authentic human emotions in a way that acutely resonates now, four decades after his commercial peak, Withers became one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.

He was beloved by soul, jazz, rock, pop and folk audiences alike, and the outpouring of emotion we expect on this day will ironically contrast with his own laid back, self-deprecating style.

Withers’ family issued the following statement: “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart-driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other, As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

West Virginia native Withers joined the L.A. music scene in the late 60s after a stint in the Navy.  In 1970 he was signed to the Sussex music label and hit the ground running with his first album, “Just As I Am,” and its instantly classic acoustic ballad, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”  Withers’ understated, rootsy style was a perfect contrast to where popular music was going at the time, from pre-disco dance music to glam rock.  His second release, 1972’s “Still Bill,” became a career disc, with top hits “Use Me” and “Lean On Me,” arguably one of the greatest songs of the past half-century.

Withers was fairly prolific over the next half-decade, releasing ” +Justments, Making Music, Naked and Warm, Menagerie” and “Bout Love.”  And while those discs were somewhat uneven, each contained enough jaw-dropping material to work well overall.  It was these select, wonderfully melodic cuts, from “Lovely Day” to “Hello Like Before,” that would make Withers’ music continue to impact generations for decades, through dozens of remakes by other acts.

After seven years of consistent recording and touring, Withers went quiet, maddening record executives — and some fans — who had grown accustomed to his annual output.  Disagreements with his record label and, according to Withers, the refusal of the label to allow him to record, kept him from releasing an album for seven years.  In the meantime, he appeared as a guest vocalist on Grover Washington’s #1 hit, “Just the Two of Us” and Ralph McDonald’s “In the Name of Love.”  His silence was finally broken with 1985’s “Watching You Watching Me,” an unfortunately overlooked album that was one of the best of his career and showed a great artist maturing wonderfully. Featuring the uptempo “Oh Yeah” and a number of beautiful ballads, it is worth seeking out.

Frustrated with the music industry, Withers then stopped actively recording, although much of his rich catalog has been regularly covered by other artists.  He toured intermittently into the 90s, but then generally ceased performing publicly. In June 2005, around the time of his 67th birthday, Withers was appropriately selected for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

In the 2000s, his recordings received renewed interest and are represented in repackaged, remastered discs. Early 2010 saw Withers’ entire catalog rereleased, often with bonus cuts. These were timed to correspond with the release of the documentary, “Still Bill,” which provided a long overdue retrospective on the career of this seminal artist.

It is tough to describe the role that Bill Withers played in the soundtracks of many of our lives. His songs pierced into the heart of emotions in a way that few others could. And even though he has largely stayed out of the limelight for more than three decades, he has remained a central part of our musical existence. He will be missed terribly, even as his incredible catalog of music lives on.

Rest in peace, Mr. Withers.

This story was republished with permission from SoulTracks.