Bill Withers has died. He was 81. I wasn’t going to add to the eulogy posts as you can – and will already have perhaps already – read about him almost anywhere else. But then, Bill Withers meant the world to me. As he did to so many. So I wanted to share a line or two about that importance.
The first full album I heard by Bill Withers was a compilation – Lean On Me: The Best of Bill Withers – released in the mid-90s. I heard it in that very mid-90s way: It was on one day in my favourite CD store and I asked about it after recognising a couple of songs then hearing a couple more I really liked on the back of those.
I left the store with that album and played it forever after. Just a revelation. What a perfect introduction. Here was a guy that wrote great songs, that sang with such heart and soul, but there was groove man – boy could he lead a band. And I’d find that out further with the second Bill Withers album I heard – and in much the same way, it was on in a store one day…
Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall is one of the very best live albums I know – some of the versions of the songs here stand out above and beyond their studio recorded counterparts – I Can’t Write Left Handed is worth it for the accompanying banter alone, Hope She’ll Be Happier is just sublime. That vocal!
And then you have the band songs. You could listen to Bill Withers’ songs for what drummer James Gadson brings to them – and some of the live versions here just absolutely crush. Opener, Use Me, with its fake ending is the sort of near hallucinatory live album experience – you really think you’re there in that moment as you hear it. Or you really wish you were at least.
So after those two albums I made my way through the Withers catalogue. And the first wave of grief came in too.
Why wasn’t this guy still making music?
Bill Withers was that absolute rarity in music. He started late, after working a trade. He didn’t put out the awkward first album that never quite hints at that talent to come and is if anything a mis-step (like Elton John, for instance) or is all but buried by the artist themselves (as with Billy Joel).
No. Bill Withers’ first album is called Just As I Am and it features Ain’t No Sunshine and Grandma’s Hands. He also covered The Beatles (Let It Be) and Fred Neil (Everybody’s Talkin’) in wonderful renditions of songs that were still pretty new to the world in their original incarnations.
A year later he released Still Bill which is his classic studio album. Use Me. Lean On Me. Who Is He (And What Is He To You). There’s the three sides of the coin of deep human emotion right there.
Bill was deep. Bill was oceans.
And then the great albums kept happening across the 70s (+Justments from 1974 is my other favourite ‘great’ studio album from Withers). But I stuck with the catalogue right up to – and including those middling 80s albums where he let Sweet Lovers out into the world – to be winningly covered by a pack of Wellingtonians.
But that was it.
In a little over 15 years Bill Withers decided he had said all he needed to.
And he had.
He made this incredible music – his acoustic guitar the least cool instrument a funk/soul singer could have but what a rhythm player! And then he just closed the book.
Returned to being a husband. A father. A grandfather. A human.
He shut the door on the world until the 2009 documentary film Still Bill opened it ajar. That’s one of the most profound and heart-warming experiences I’ve had sitting in a theatre watching a music film. Impossible not to weep. The other time was watching the Soul Power concert film/doco with the most extraordinary version of Hope She’ll Be Happier.
Selfishly, I wanted more music from Bill Withers at first. I had to learn to respect that he made the right call. A call that is so hard to make and that not enough people get right – or are even prepared to try. His towering strength to me – inside and around all that amazing music that speaks so soulfully and truthfully to so much of the human condition, deep love songs and social justice tunes that contemplate the creeping paranoia in all of us – was his silence. His decision to only say what he needed to say.
Selfishly, I’ve grieved for Bill Withers already. Then realised I didn’t need to. I shouldn’t.
I felt the same way at first when hearing the news of his passing. A pang, of course. A passing of one of the giants of my musical world. But we still have his music. He gave us more than was necessary. And just enough of himself. He managed to keep a bit for himself.
Ain’t no sunshine…sure. It felt like that at first. But yesterday, on hearing the news, was just absolutely A lovely day – we took the dog for a walk, we played some of our favourite Withers songs and we lived and laughed a great day. It was a Bill Withers day for sure.
I get a lump in my throat when I even think about the song Lovely Day.
I always will. Because of Bill. Still.
When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day
A lovely day
R.I.P. Bill Withers