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’Ain’t No Sunshine’ when he’s gone: Remembering Bill Withers

| Monday, April 6, 2020

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Bill Withers’ career unfolded like a screenplay: A stuttering, West Virginia-raised Navy veteran sells his furniture to a coworker and uses the meager proceeds to move to Los Angeles and sell his demo tapes. Even as his albums earn gold certifications and he writes a trio of top-three hits in the span of a year, the singer never quits his job assembling for an aerospace manufacturer, assuming — correctly — that success in the music industry is fleeting. He retires only 14 years after his debut album was released, and spends the next three-odd decades serving as a rarely-seen, oft-lauded icon of an entire genre. 

Of course, Withers himself probably never would have gone to see this movie: when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, he told Rolling Stone, “I really don’t have the personality to do this all time. So it’s all life, you know, as long as you’re doing something.” “It’s all life” is a nice way to put it: Despite his reclusiveness, Bill Withers spent his entire professional career always doing something, up until his death from heart complications at the age of 81 Monday.

Withers accomplished more in the span of fourteen years — including a fiery eight-albums-in-eight-years tear from 1971 to 1979 — than most artists do in an entire career. His four singles released from late 1971 to mid-1972 — “Ain’t No Sunshine” (a No. 3 hit), “Grandma’s Hands” (a No. 42 hit), “Lean On Me” (Wither’s sole No. 1 hit) and “Use Me” (a No. 2 hit) — encapsulate Withers’s appeal, and could stand up to the best singles runs of any other R&B artist. Backed by Booker T. and the MG’s, plus a moonlighting Stephen Stills on lead guitar, “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a chamber-soul elegy that finds room for both sweeping orchestration and Withers’ increasingly hoarse exhortations of “I know,” whose 26 repetitions are music’s greatest white flag. One of the few true pop standards, the song has been covered by everybody from a prepubescent Michael Jackson to an unplugged Paul McCartney to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but it’s still Withers’ sparse, touching original that stands as the definitive rendition.   

“Grandma’s Hands” may not be as famous, but its influence stretches farther than most listeners may realize: the haunting, voice-from-the-center-of-the-earth guitar and vocal opening of the song somehow serves as connective tissue between the best song of the 1920s and the best song of the 1990s. “Use Me” is similarly genre-agnostic, an unbelievably funky single whose hopscotching bass riff is equal parts Zep and Chic. 

Withers wasn’t only a singles artist, with his deep cuts as fully formed as his hits.  “Who Is He (And What Is He To You?)” off 1972’s “Still Bill” is the best of these, a cinematic slice of paranoia drenched in Ashford-Simpson strings and “Shaft” crescendos. 1985’s “Steppin’ Right Along” is a late career synth-and-cowbell-laden dancer that proves Withers could have fit in alongside ‘80s descendants like Terence Trent D’Arby had he wanted to. Even 1977’s “Lovely Day,” which missed the top 20 upon its initial release, has found a second life after years of sampling and licensing; it’s currently Withers’ second-most played track on Spotify. Withers’ mastery wasn’t limited to his own songs: His 1971 cover of “Let It Be” did what The Beatles and Aretha couldn’t, turning the song into the sweaty, gospel-country rave-up it was always meant to be. 

After retiring in 1985, Withers slipped out of the public eye, only emerging to write a couple of songs for Jimmy Buffett (which, of course, are fantastic) and be reluctantly feted for his career. A 2015 tribute concert at Carnegie Hall — the site of Withers’ greatest album-length effort, 1973’s “Live At Carnegie Hall” — served as a retrospective of Withers’ achievements, with contemporaries and progeny alike lining up to pay homage and take a swing at his greatest songs. The entire show is worth tracking down on YouTube, if only to see the breadth of Withers’ influence — ranging from Aloe Blacc and Bradford Marsalis faithfully running through the deathless yacht-rock smash “Just The Two Of Us” to Ed Sheeran unsuccessfully trying his best to ruin “Lonely Town, Lonely Street.”  

At the show’s close, Michael McDonald — one of the few 70s singers who could even attempt to match Withers’ voice — came out with the choir from the Stuttering Association for the Young to sing “Lean On Me.” In its original form, “Lean On Me” is a puzzling song: a paint-by-numbers, almost-sleepy gospel piece that rode a simple piano figure and an impossibly tender vocal turn from Withers all the way to the top of the charts. The magic of “Lean On Me,” though, isn’t in its quality as a single; if that were the case, Club Nouveau’s superlative dance cover, and fellow No. 1 hit from 1986 would be the most popular version of the song.

“Lean On Me” works because of its simplicity; the hook, easy to learn and impossible to forget, invites people to sing. It’s one of the great friendship songs — romantic love, as the Withers who wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine” surely knows, is all too fickle for a sentiment as universal as “Lean On Me.” It lends itself to singalongs, then, and the last near-50 years of constant exposure have turned the song into a modern hymn.  Like “Imagine,” like “Bittersweet Symphony,” like “Born To Run,” “Lean On Me” is trite and hackneyed; like those songs, though, hearing it on the right day can absolutely wreck you. Friday, the day Withers’ death was announced to the public, was one of those days. 

For all of his great songs, Withers will probably be remembered for “Lean On Me,” and that’s okay. It’s not his best song, but it’s his most important one. In that Michael McDonald clip, there’s a moment where McDonald and the band cut out, leaving only a children’s choir and the combined voices of Carnegie Hall to sing the song, and they sound amazing. In that moment — and in thousands of others since 1972 — Bill Withers gave us all somebody to lean on. 

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