The soul artist also wrote Ain’t No Sunshine and Lovely Day
US singer-songwriter Bill Withers, whose hits included “Lean On Me”, has died aged 81, his family said.
The influential soul artist also wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lovely Day” and “Just The Two of Us”, among other much-loved songs.
The three-time Grammy Award winner, who withdrew from making music in the mid-1980s, died of heart complications on Monday in Los Angeles, his family 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.
Paying tribute to the singer’s legacy, his family said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka wrote on Twitter: “There is no more appropriate time to reflect on his words than now as we lean on each other.”
Withers’ songs during his brief career have become the soundtracks of countless weddings, parties and public events. “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.
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 grandmother.
Discussing overcoming his stutter with The Telegraph in 2010, Withers said: “Well, I thought about it. And it’s not a physical handicap because you don’t stutter in certain circumstances. I came to the conclusion that it was a fear of the perception of the listener. Having too high an opinion of other people and too low an opinion of yourself.”
“Once you come to that conclusion, you try to get your opinion of others in a more realistic place… And still it leaks in from time to time. The idea is to minimise it.”
“We all need somebody to lean on.”
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) April 3, 2020
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 songs by night 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.
Rest in power Bill Withers. Your voice, songs, and total expression gave us love, hope, and strength. My soul always has & always will be full of your music. Your humility displayed & depth of your power as you carried us all to a better place. You're still & always will be Bill. pic.twitter.com/mkpcSBfuZv
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) April 3, 2020
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.”
Later would come the striking “ Lovely Day,” co-written with Skip Scarborough and featuring Withers holding the word “day” for almost 19 seconds, and “Just the Two Of Us,” co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter. His “Live at Carnegie Hall” in 1973 made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
“The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that,” Sting said in “Still Bill,” a 2010 documentary of Withers.
But Withers’ career when Sussex Records went bankrupt and he was scooped up by Columbia Records. He no longer had complete control over his music and chaffed when it was suggested he do an Elvis cover. His new executives found Withers difficult.
None of his Columbia albums reached the Top 40 except for 1977’s “Menagerie,” which produced “Lovely Day.” (His hit duet with Grover Washington Jr. “Just the Two of Us” was on Washington’s label). Withers’ last album was 1985′s “Watching You Watching Me.”
Though his songs often dealt with relationships, Withers also wrote ones with social commentary, including “Better Off Dead” about an alcoholic’s suicide, and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” about an injured Vietnam War veteran.
He was awarded Grammys as a songwriter for “Ain’t No Sunshine” in 1971 and for “Just the Two Of Us” in 1981. In 1987, Bill received his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of the 1972 hit “Lean on Me” by Club Nouveau.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder. Withers thanked his wife as well as the R&B pioneers who helped his career like Ray Jackson, Al Bell and Booker T Jones. He also got in a few jabs at the record industry, saying A&R stood for “antagonistic and redundant.”
His music has been sampled and covered by such artists as BlackStreet’s “No Diggity,” Will Smith’s version of “ Just the Two Of Us, ” Black Eyed Peas’ “Bridging The Gap” and Twista’s “Sunshine.” The song “Lean on Me” was the title theme of a 1989 movie starring Morgan Freeman.
His songs are often used on the big screen, including “The Hangover,” “28 Days,” “American Beauty,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Crooklyn,” “Flight,” “Beauty Shop,” “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Flight.”
“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia,” Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015.
He is survived by his wife, Marcia Johnson and their two children, Todd and Kori.