Drummer, front-man, music journalist, historian, and educator Questlove refers to his hero Bill Withers as, “the last African-American Everyman.” Of himself, Withers claims he’s, “not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with.” Grammy Award-winning and Hall of Fame songwriter Bill Withers composed timeless songs from the soul that will live in R&B, rock and pop music for lifetimes to come, though he spent just over eight years in the music industry.
Withers was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy, and “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California” before being discovered and signed by Clarence Avant to his newly formed Sussex Records. Graham Nash visited the studio and was overwhelmed by Withers telling him, “You don’t know how good you are.”
In 1972, Withers wrote, “Lean On Me.” He claims it was the first riff he learned to play on the piano saying, “I didn’t change fingers. I just went one, two, three, four, up and down the piano... Even a tiny child can play that.”
The words he wrote for the song reflected on his origins in the poor town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and were a departure from the love songs typical of the time. They were about friendship, and lifting up a member of the community when they were in need.
Following his 1980 hit, “Just the Two of Us,” Withers walked away from writing music professionally. "It wasn't the only way I knew how to live." He and his wife Marcia were very active in the lives of their children, and invested wisely in L.A. real estate. Marcia continues to manage the licensing of her husband’s music, and they’ve built a recording studio into their home. But Withers refuses all offers of a comeback, even the extensive efforts by Questlove.
“I started my campaign to produce a Bill Withers album back in 2004… I won’t give up.”
As to whether he’s written any songs that we’ll hear at some later date, Withers told NPR’s David Green, “Just because your dog doesn't bite your mailman, it doesn't mean he ain't still a dog. You know, he can still bite you.”