In 1971, the pop and soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers debuted on the new Sussex label with the urban song “Harlem.” Disc jockeys flipped the single over and its orchestrated flip side, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” became the first of three Top 10 gold singles for Withers on the label, which included the funk sounding “Use Me” and his No. 1 soothing friendship anthem, “Lean on Me,” which has been popular for decades, especially during challenging times. More singles continued through 1974 on the Sussex label, including the Christmas song “The Gift of Giving.” When the Sussex label folded, Withers was picked up by Columbia and had a Top 40 hit with “Lovely Day,” the soul single “Don’t It Make It Better” and more. In 1981, Withers returned to the Top 10 for a final time singing “Just the Two of Us,” an edited version of a longer track from Grover Washington Jr.’s Winelight album with Bill as the featured vocalist and a co-writer of the song. In 1987, Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me” became a No. 1 gold single for a second time for Withers as its composer. Withers passed away on March 30 at the age of 81.
The following is an interview with Bill Withers, conducted by Goldmine contributor Ken Sharp a few years back.
GOLDMINE: You’ve always been very humble about your talents.
BILL WITHERS: I had grown up in the Navy. I’d been in the Navy for nine years. I’d worked in a military complex and factories and things like that. Those places aren’t the places where huge egos can foster. If you’ve got one, you better keep it to yourself. People who grew up from the beginnings of their lives doing music, there’s a certain confidence that they have like athletes. Since I made this transition for some other place, the place that I came from just didn’t nurture that kind of egocentric assessment of yourself. I never had a lack of confidence as a singer or songwriter. I probably had a lack of social confidence because I stuttered until I was 28. I was a chronic stutterer. People who stutter do so because of a lack of confidence. My theory is it’s a fear of the response of the listener or the opinion of the listener as to what you’re saying. And so that being sort of the foundation of my being. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could sing, I just had a natural apprehension of somebody accepting me doing anything.
GM: How many years did it take before you found success?
BW: I came to L.A. in ’67. It might have taken like three, four years to get noticed. I wasn’t really pounding away on the pavements like people who have showed themselves to be driven like Jennifer Lopez and Kanye West, who just need it. I was already in my 30s. I had already been socialized in a whole other world until this was more like, “Let me take a whack at this and see if I can pull this off.” Every Sunday you’ve got like 40 million guys watching the football game, right? So all these guys are sitting around on the couch with their beer and maybe 10,000 of these guys think, “I could probably play quarterback better than that guy.” Three of them probably could. So if you use that analogy, I was one of those three guys sitting around saying, “I think I could do this music thing, it doesn’t look like the most impossible thing in the world to do,” so I kinda took my whack at it and it worked out for me.
GM: Do you view yourself more as a songwriter than an artist?
BW: I never was able to separate the two, since I never did it any other way. It’s like asking somebody who’s ambidextrous, “Are you right-handed or left-handed?” Probably now I would think of myself more on the songwriting side, but there’s a reason for that. Because at this age, I don’t really need that kind of vanity. I’m not trying to attract girls or anything. But at that age I probably felt I could find more use for the attention I would get as a singer.
GM: Let’s talk about your trademark footstomps.
BW: I had this thing when I was sitting around in my apartment. Somebody threw away a drafting table, a big wooden thing. So I cut it in half and used some carpet that somebody threw away, I carpeted this drafting table and I would sit on it. I liked the way it sounded when I stomped my foot on it. So when Booker (T. Jones) came to my house to listen to the songs that I had, he said, “Well, why don’t we bring that thing with you?” So then we did two sessions (laughing) and the guy in the studio said, “Get this thing and you guys get out of here because nobody’s paid the bills.” Booker was very patient with me. Anything laying around in the studio, Booker could play it. Booker and The MG’s were all nice guys, and they were very accommodating. They played for all those years for those acts at Stax. They knew how to be patient with singers. If you think about it. All those Otis Redding records, those are great records, and those guys were the foundation of them. To be able to have people like that, and come and kinda usher you in, it doesn’t hurt you, that’s for sure. I didn’t do footstomps all the time. But when it was appropriate, Al Jackson, the drummer in Booker T. and The MG’s, he just played with it.
GM: How did you come to write “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and did you know it was special?
BW: The only thing that I thought was special when we did that album was telling Booker T. about “Grandma’s Hands.” I said, “If anybody remembers me, they’re gonna remember me for this.” And now when people come up to me, they usually sing “Grandma’s Hands.” Johnny Cash came to see me once in Hawaii, and I was surprised Johnny Cash knew who I was. He said, “I’d like to meet your grandmother.”
Especially since this record company had trouble paying the bills, I didn’t know if my album would see the light of day or not.
I was watching a movie called 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 left a lot of people in there (laughs). More people get left than wanna admit it, and they can identity 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 ago. They broke in there and the guy had killed himself listening to that song.
GM: Paul McCartney covered that song in the ’90s. Could you ever imagine in 1971 when you recorded a version of “Let It Be” for your debut album that 20-something years later, McCartney would be doing a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine”?
BW: First of all, I couldn’t have even imagined then that Paul McCartney would even know that I existed. That was very interesting. I liked his version. I like anybody’s version of something that I’ve written, because it’s another point of view. Women will ask you constantly, “How do I look?” Constantly they ask you that. You can go out with the most beautiful woman in he world and before the evening is over, she’s gonna ask you, “Do you think I’m pretty?” Everybody’s told her she was pretty from the day she was born. So most of us, even though we don’t admit it, we all want to know how do we appear to somebody else. So when somebody covers one of your songs, it’s sort of reassuring that the appearance you gave to them made enough of an impression on them that they wanted to interpret it for themselves.
GM: Discuss your guitar style; you’ve described it as very limited, but it works perfectly for your songs.
BW: 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. 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 $100 acoustic guitar. If you research it, very few songs that live in the minds of people are written by virtuoso musicians. The things that they do are too complicated. There’s an almost inverse ratio between virtuosity and popularity. The form of music that requires the most virtuosity and dexterity would be jazz. It’s a wonderful form of music, but it’s just a little too complicated for most people’s listening taste. So then the most popular forms of music are not that difficult to play. Simplicity is directly related to availability for most people. We have the best times when it’s simple, people are just laughin’ and talkin’. Fewer people will have a good time in a lecture about physics than they will at a barbecue. And the good time increases when they have a few drinks, which makes them a little bit more stupid and keeps things a little simpler. 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. As a lyricist, I think I was pretty good at saying things that are difficult to say in a simpler form. If you listen to a song like “Hello Like Before.” That certainly is not over simplistic. In fact, I’ve never heard anybody say that phrase before, or since, but you know what it means, right? I think we use whatever is available to us. Some people are appealing because they have this physical beauty, other people are appealing because of their energy, and other people are appealing because they’re dark and mysterious. Whatever you can work to draw attention to yourself, that’s what you use.
GM: Recall how you came to write your lone number one hit, “Lean on Me”?
BW: 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. 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. If somebody was asking me what kind of technique I use, you just are and something crosses your mind sometimes. 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 to 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 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.
GM: You must be proud that “Lean on Me” means so much to people.
BW: 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 situations 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 a 100 years old.
GM: Your memories of writing another big hit, “Use Me”?
BW: That’s fun stuff. That’s just talkin’ trash. That’s just a song about being a little playful, a little arrogant and a little cool. Unless you were one of those people that were born popular. I remember being young and I would have girls tell me, “You’re too nice.” I didn’t understand that. What kind of twisted world are we in? Women like bad boys, I guess. There is no more confusing form of rejection than for somebody to tell you that you’re not interesting in them because you’re too nice. So over the course of time, you say OK, you wanna play, OK let’s play? “Use Me” taps into that. I tried to be nice, now let’s get nasty. That song came quick. I was working in McDonnell Douglas out in Long Beach and the noise of the factory, they had some women working there. I crossed that line there thinking, “You all want a nasty boy? Well here I come.” (laughs)
GM: As a songwriter, was there a time you found your voice, and weren’t just mimicking what you had heard?
BW: 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 were 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 anybody. When I started writing songs I didn’t know who wrote it, I just heard it and didn’t research it. If you talked about people you liked, you would have to be crazy to listen to Ray Charles and think that you could sound like that, or Aretha Franklin, or later on Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand. People that have these breathtaking sounds. I used to laugh when somebody would say, “Yeah, I got the next Aretha Franklin.” And I thought, “You’ve got to be out of your mind! There ain’t never gonna be another Aretha Franklin.” (laughs)
GM: When you started having success, were there any songwriters whom you did admire?
BW: Yeah, people like Hal David. I’m a very lyric-based person. One of the most flattering things to me was that Hal David knew my name, and was standing in my hallway by the bathroom and Hal David was talking to me. We were having this little private conversation. This was at the event where he informed me that I had been elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The event was secondary to me. The most fun was having Hal David pull me aside in a hallway and talk to me.
GM: What are the elements that make a great song?
BW: I’m gonna give you answer you probably don’t expect. I think the greatness of a song is directly proportionate to how many people wanna think it is and how long they think it is. I mean, you’ve got all kind of stuff that becomes hit. “Disco Duck” was a hit. But it was only useful during that time. When a lot of people find use for something over a long period of time, that means it’s a great song. It’s a subjective thing anyway; it’s not like sports where you keep score by points. It’s like who appreciates it. People who like one genre of music might not appreciate a great song in another genre of music. Let’s take a great country song like Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” It’s a great song, but somebody whose taste is hip-hop, they might not sit there long enough to hear it. Or some of that fun stuff that Dr. Dre does like ”California Love.” That is a great song in that genre. But somebody whose taste is jazz wouldn’t want to hear that. So it’s all so subjective. The only way we can assign any kind of rating to it is if lasts over the years.
GM: Lastly, pick a song or two of yours that you’re most proud of.
BW: Probably “Grandma’s Hands,” because I probably would have written the same song when I was five years old, and I would have written the same song now had I not written it already. For the originality and the approach I would say “Hello Like Before” or maybe “Memories Are That Way,” things that I did because I wanted to do them. I knew that nobody was gonna grab them and start playing them on the radio. But those still hold up for me today. I ran into Steve Harvey not too long ago and he started reciting words to me from “You Just Can’t Smile It Away.” (Recites words) “It’s much more than passion, it’s love, and I’ve seen some people say they’ve seen love move mountains.” The poetry of that is probably more important to me than songs somebody might be more familiar with.