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Q&A: Bill Withers on the immortality of "Lean On Me" and more

Bill Withers is revered in music circles as one of the most influential artists in soul and R&B. He is once again back in the spotlight thanks to a welcome DualDisc reissue of his remarkable 1971 debut, Just As I Am. While he is perhaps best known for penning the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the chart-topping “Lean On Me” and the #2 smash hits “Use Me” and “Just The Two Of Us,” Withers is a songwriter’s songwriter, with hundreds of genre-spanning covers recorded by the likes of Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Black Eyed Peas. Withers was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2005.

By Ken Sharp

Bill Withers is revered in music circles as one of the most influential artists in soul and R&B. He is once again back in the spotlight thanks to a welcome DualDisc reissue of his remarkable 1971 debut, Just As I Am. While he is perhaps best known for penning the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the chart-topping “Lean On Me” and the #2 smash hits “Use Me” and “Just The Two Of Us,” Withers is a songwriter’s songwriter, with hundreds of genre-spanning covers recorded by the likes of Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Black Eyed Peas. Withers was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2005.

Goldmine spoke with Withers about Just As I Am, the endearing single “Lean On Me” and songwriting.

Goldmine: Thirty years after its release, Just As I Am is hailed as a classic. Listening back to the record, can you explain why it still connects and resonates?

Bill Withers: First of all I don’t listen to that stuff that much. I don’t know.... It’s like if you made something that was distinctly disco, then it would probably be most functional during that time. I think the style that we did was kinda folky, whatever you wanna call it. The people that were involved, from Booker T. Jones to Stephen Stills — you’ve got some genres covered right there — and then Graham Nash sat in front of me encouraging me. The subject matter too. “Grandma’s Hands” was on that record right? I mean, Grandmas ain’t never gonna go out of style. Kanye West said, “Is there anybody here that didn’t like their grandmother?” He said, “Sometimes you don’t like your mom, but everybody likes their grandmother.” [laughs]

What did Jones contribute to the production and performance on Just As I Am?

Booker T. was actually absolutely perfect for me; there couldn’t have been a better person to shepherd me into this whole thing. I didn’t and still don’t know an F-sharp from Ninth Street, and I don’t care. To me it either sounds good or it doesn’t. Booker knew who to bring into the studio. He was able to bring in people like Stephen Stills. Plus Booker’s very bright. He’s also not obnoxious; he’s a gentle soul. He was perfect for me. If somebody would have brought in some loud, overaggressive producer-type guy who was full of himself, that wouldn’t have worked for me at all.

The material that you recorded lends itself to that very sparse, organic approach.

Probably that and the fact that the record company didn’t have any money. We did that whole album in about three sessions, the last of which we did like half the album on. We got through two sessions, and we got kicked out of the studio because the record company couldn’t pay the bills. I had to wait six months until somebody came up with enough money to finish recording that thing.

How did you come to write “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and did you know it was special?

I was watching a movie called The Days Of Wine And Roses with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both battling alcoholism, and at one point one of them would be up and one of them would be down. They kept leaving each other. Then I looked out of the window, and probably a bird ate a peanut and that just crossed my mind. [laughs] The song was written pretty quickly. It’s a very short song anyway. It has no introduction. They put it on the B-side of another song because they didn’t think it was suitable. When you put out singles in those days, you put what you thought you’re never gonna need again on the B-side. The people turned it over and started playing it. How many songs can you think of that have no instrumental introduction and just bam, somebody starts singing? And then not only that, a song that has no words in the chorus, just “I know, I know, I know.” In fact, I was gonna write something in there and Booker said, “Nope, just keep it like that.” The song has no introduction and a two-word chorus. I think people still like “Ain’t No Sunshine” because a lot of people [have] left a lot of people. [laughs] More people get left than wanna admit it, and they can identify with the song.

Years ago somebody told me this — it might not have been true — they found this person who had committed suicide somewhere in Northern California. Remember those old 45 record players that would just keep playing over and over again? They kept hearing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” over and over again. They broke in there, and the guy had killed himself listening to that song.

You’ve described your guitar playing as very limited, but it works perfectly for your songs.

I don’t really play the guitar. What I do on the guitar probably most school children could do. I have to tell you a funny story. Years ago, Gibson wanted me to endorse guitars. So you get a free guitar, and there are some benefits to that so I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So then they invited me to this thing in Indianapolis. They had all these guitar players there like Les Paul and B.B. King; [laughs] they had some real guitar players there. I get there and the guy says, “We need you to go up and jam with those guys.” I started laughing. [laughs] I said, “I can’t play this thing. I mean, I just use it to accompany myself in the most basic fashion.” I couldn’t afford a piano living in apartments like I was. It’s too loud, makes too much noise. The cheapest instrument I could find was a hundred-dollar acoustic guitar. If you research it, very few songs that live in the minds of people are written by virtuoso musicians. So for a form like I do, simplicity was an asset because the simplicity increased the probability of availability for most listeners, as a songwriter and musician.

The lyrics on Just As I Am reflect the times, the social and cultural upheaval — especially on a song such as “Harlem.”

I had been to New York once when I was in the Navy and once when I was trying to get into the music business. I thought, “Maybe I’ll meet somebody if I go to New York.” So there was this guy that was the cousin of a friend and he used to take me to Harlem — at that time there were still clubs like Count Basie’s club — so I got to spend some time in Harlem in around 1965. During that period was probably the last time that Harlem was like that. Nobody thought of Harlem as a ghetto then. It was a lively place that was the birthplace of a lot of stuff: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, the days of Joe Louis, the fighter — that was where everybody wanted to go.

Sometimes I’ll start a song and put it away and then finish it later when I get around to it. “Harlem” is a good one. Things come fairly quickly to me or not at all. I don’t think that I labor over stuff that long, which is why I like songwriting — because it’s a short form. With a song you’re challenged to say what you gotta say within that amount of time. And you also stay focused on that subject. “Harlem” captures what I saw at that time. “Harlem” is just kind of figurative in that sense because that whole process went on almost everywhere if you were black but more so in the big city. I’m satisfied when I’ve written a song if it makes me see something, if something visual comes to mind. So I think those songs on that album, you can see things when you listen to it; I think it brings images to mind. If you can see something in my songs, then I’ve succeeded.

How did you come to write your lone #1 hit, “Lean On Me”?

I remember writing “Lean On Me.” Since I’d started I made a little bit of money, and I figured I could afford a little piano. So I bought one of those Wurlitzer pianos. I screwed the legs on it and sat down and just started running my hands up and down [the keys]. That’s a song that most children find is the first song that they learn to play because you don’t have to change your fingers — you just go up and down. Then the lyrics are what crossed my mind. The message of the lyrics are just what it says. That’s what I wanted to say. As to why I wanted to say it? It was an accumulation of subtle things that had buried themselves in my psyche over time. I think that would be the best explanation of why you would call something a gift is when something occurs to you, like in “Lean On Me,” and you don’t know why. If I knew why I’d get up every morning and I’d push that song button, and I would do it every day and I would just dominate the whole genre.

I’ve always said that I think that some of the best stories about how songs are written are made up after the song is written and people start asking you, “How did you do it?” That’s just my little private theory. So the song lyrically deals with the two positions that people find themselves in most often. One of the most noble and self-fulfilling things to do in your life is to be able to offer help to somebody ’cause it does wonders for your ego. It makes you the stronger half of something. The other is people who are in need of help and want to believe that there are people who care enough to give it. When you do that EKG exam and the thing is going up and down, very seldom are our lives in that middle position where we don’t need to give or receive help. Sometimes we need to give help just to validate some kind of importance we need to feel. Sometimes we need help because we find ourselves in that position.

The only reason anybody remembers my name is the things that I did grew over time. I never did anything that made this huge, instant impact. In fact, some of the songs that my record company might have complained about when I turned them in, over the last 30 years have become like part of the landscape. I got some complaints when I turned in “Lean On Me,” not from my immediate record company but from the parent record company. There’s a very famous record executive who is no longer with us, his response to my Still Bill album was, “Who let you get in and do this stuff?” Everybody was thinking boy-girl stuff, and I’ve gotten away with songs like “Lean On Me” and “Grandma’s Hands” that don’t have anything to do with romantic love. Romantic love is the most fickle thing in the world. The consistent kind of love is that kind that will make you go over and wipe mucus and saliva from somebody’s face after they become brain dead. Romantic love you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically. The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.

You must be proud that “Lean On Me” means so much to people.

Yeah. It certainly would fall into the category of things that I was not sorry that I did. [laughs]

What’s interesting to me is all the places I’ve run into “Lean On Me.” I remember visiting a prison and happening to walk by and the prison choir was practicing, and they were singing that song. They didn’t know I was there. I remember the kids put me in the sixth-grade play when my son graduated from elementary school. I had to sing “Lean On Me” with the kids. They got me there. [laughs] From prisons to churches to children’s situations is where I’ve run into that song. After this amount of time that song has sort of ingrained itself where it almost seems like something that doesn’t particularly belong to me. It’s like it was something that was there before I got here. If you ask somebody they might tell you that “Lean On Me” was 100 years old.

As a songwriter, was there a time where you felt you found your voice?

I don’t think I’m similar as a writer to many people. I wasn’t overally influenced by anybody. First of all, I grew up in a house where it was very religious, so there was no secular music in the house. I can’t say I sat around listening to the blues or whatever. You couldn’t bring any blues into my house growing up. I didn’t have any money to go out and listen to music on jukeboxes so I heard whatever inadvertently came on the radio, from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams. So whatever leaked through the radio into my psyche probably left a composite. I never felt equal enough to whomever I liked to try and sound like them. There was always a lot of songs that had something about them that I didn’t like. Either I wished somebody would have said something different or whatever, so I had my own points I wanted to prove and my own things that I wanted to say. The people that I admired I always thought were so far out of reach that it would be pointless to try and imitate [them].

Do you have any plans for a new record or performing?

I don’t know. The thing about it is it’s a different time for me. I wasn’t socialized in the beginning of my life as a music- type person. So I learned how to live before I did any of this music stuff, and I found out that when I based too much of my own personal value on it, it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do. For me, I’m just here trying to process life. There is a chance I’ll do something. I just might wake up in the morning and decide I want some attention and figure out a way for everyone to look at me. Because that’s what it is. They call it show business — it’s showing-off business. So if I wake up with the urge to show off, you’re gonna get sick of me. [laughs]

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