I am sorry to pass on the news that Bill Withers died on Monday at the age of 81. The cause, according to his family, was heart complications. The news will break the hearts of anyone who leaned on his music to get through sad times or celebrate happy occasions.
Where were you the first time you heard “Ain’t No Sunshine” in 1971? If you were around at the time, I bet you remember. It was a heckuva single, one of those buried treasures discovered by deejays who had to flip over the A side (“Harlem”) to find it. The rest of us took it from there.
I should add that that this single and the first album were produced by Booker T. Jones with the Stax rhythm section and a few other guests backing Withers. Stephen Stills sat in on guitar for “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The estimable Booker T. added the string arrangement.
Withers’s background and personality seemed to me to ooze from the grooves of his records. That’s what I hear in “Grandma’s Hands,” anyway.
I think the same applies to “Use Me.” This just pops out at you.
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers joined the Navy at age 17. He put in 9 years as an aircraft mechanic before he punched out. I learn from the Times obituary that “[a] visit to a club to see Lou Rawls perform was a catalyst for changing his life.” It wasn’t just Rawls’s singing that lit Withers up, either. It was the babe magnet aspect of the vocation. You can hear it oozing from the grooves of “Use Me.”
Withers was his own man. When his original label went bust, Withers signed with Columbia. The suits at Columbia wouldn’t let him be. The Times obit also plucks this quotable quote from a Rolling Stone interview in 2015 when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.” RIP.