Bill Withers, who wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “ Lean on Me, ” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” has died from heart complications, his family said in a statement to The Associated Press. He was 81.
The three-time Grammy Award winner, who withdrew from making music in the mid-1980s, died on Monday in Los Angeles, the statement said. His death comes as the public has drawn inspiration from his music during the coronavirus pandemic, with health care workers, choirs, artists and more posting their own renditions on “Lean on Me” to help get through the difficult times.
“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,” the family statement read. “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.”
Withers’ songs during his brief career have become the soundtracks of countless engagements, weddings and backyard parties. They have powerful melodies and perfect grooves melded with a smooth voice that conveys honesty and complex emotions without vocal acrobatics.
“Lean on Me,” a paean to friendship, was performed at the inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “Ain’t No Sunshine”and “Lean on Me” are among Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” musician and band leader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
His death caused a torrent of appreciation on social media, including from former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who said Withers’ music has been a cherished part of her life. “It added to my joy in the good times, and also gave me comfort and inspiration when I needed it most,” she tweeted.
Billy Dee Williams tweeted “your music cheered my heart and soothed my soul” and Chance the Rapper said Withers’ songs are “some of the best songs of all time” and “my heart really hurts for him.” Lenny Kravitz said “My soul always has and always will be full of your music.”
“We lost a giant of songwriting today,” ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams said in a statement. “Bill Withers’ songs are among the most treasured and profound in the American songbook — universal in the way they touch people all over the world, transcending genre and generation. He was a beautiful man with a stunning sense of humor and a gift for truth.”
Withers, who overcame a childhood stutter, was born the last of six children in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was 3, Withers was raised by his mother’s family in nearby Beckley.
He joined the Navy at 17 and spent nine years in the service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, worked at an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop and recorded demos of his tunes in hopes of landing a recording contract.
In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, he put out his first album, “Just As I Am,” with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm. It had the hits “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film “Days of Wine and Roses.” He was photographed on the cover, smiling and holding his lunch pail.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” was originally released as the B-side of his debut single, “Harlem.” But radio DJs flipped the disc and the song climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard charts and spent a total of 16 weeks in the top 40.
Withers went on to generate more hits a year later with the inspirational “Lean on Me,” the menacing “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)” and the slinky “Use Me” on his second album, “Still Bill.”