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Mon, 07.04.1938

Bill Withers, Singer, Lyricist born

Bill Withers

*Bill Withers was born on this date in 1938.  He was a Black singer-songwriter and musician.

William Harrison "Bill" Withers Jr., the youngest of six children, was born in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia.  He was the son of Mattie (Galloway), a maid, and William Withers, a miner. He was born with a stutter and later said he had difficulty fitting in. His parents divorced when he was three, and his mother's family raised him in nearby Beckley, West Virginia. He was 13 years old when his father died. 

Withers enlisted in the United States Navy at 17 and served for nine years, during which time he became interested in singing and writing songs.  He left the Navy in 1965, relocating to Los Angeles in 1967 to start a music career. His debut release was "Three Nights and a Morning" in 1967. Arranged by Mort Garson, the song went unnoticed then but was later reworked by Withers as the track "Harlem." 

Withers worked as an assembler for several companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, IBM, and Ford, while recording demo tapes with his money, shopping them around, and performing in clubs at night. When he returned with the song "Ain't No Sunshine" in 1971, he refused to resign from his job because he believed the music business was a fickle industry.

In early 1970, Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records, auditioned his demonstration tape favorably. Avant signed Withers to a record deal and assigned former Stax Records stalwart Booker T. Jones to produce Withers' first album. Three three-hour recording sessions were planned for the album, with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands" as singles. The album features Stephen Stills playing the lead guitar. On the cover of the album, Withers is pictured at his job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California, holding his lunch box. The album was a success, and Withers began touring with a band assembled from Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band members. Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for "Ain't No Sunshine" at the 14th Annual Grammy Awards in 1972. The track had already sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA in September 1971. 

During a hiatus from touring, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill. The single "Lean on Me" went to number one the week of July 8, 1972.   It was his second gold single, with over three million confirmed sales. His follow-up, "Use Me," released in August 1972, became his third million seller, with the R.I.A.A. gold disc award taking place on October 12, 1972. His performance at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, was recorded and released as the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall on November 30, 1972. In 1974, Withers recorded the album +'Justments. Due to a legal dispute with the Sussex company, Withers could not record for some time thereafter. 

During this time, he wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips album I Feel a Song. In October 1974, he performed in concert with James Brown, Etta James, and B.B. King in Zaire four weeks before the historic fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack. Other footage of his performance is included in the 2008 documentary film Soul Power. Withers was known for his "smooth" baritone vocals and "sumptuous" soul arrangements. He wrote some of the most covered songs of the 1970s. 

In Rolling Stone, writer Andy Greene noted that several of his songs "are embedded in the culture and have been covered countless times." Writing for The New York Times, Giovanni Russonello considered Withers "a soulful singer with a gift for writing understated classics," adding, "the ultimate homespun hit-maker, he had an innate sense of what might make a song memorable, and little interest in excess attitude or accoutrements. Ultimately Withers reminded us that it’s every day that is the most meaningful: work, family, love, loss." A Billboard article considered that Withers "stands as one of R&B/soul music's most revered singer-songwriters." The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson deemed him "a songwriter's songwriter." Musicians Sade, D'Angelo, Justin Timberlake, John Legend, and Ed Sheeran have credited Withers as a musical inspiration. 

Withers married actress Denise Nicholas in 1973, during her work on the sitcom Room 222. The couple made headlines following reports of domestic violence. They divorced in 1974. In 1976, Withers married Marcia Johnson. They had two children, Todd and Kori. Marcia eventually assumed the direct management of his Beverly Hills–based publishing companies, in which his children became involved as adults. Withers worked as a professional musician for just 15 years, from 1970 to 1985, after which he moved on to other occupations. He died from heart complications in Los Angeles on March 30, 2020, at age 81.

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