Tragedy struck the music world again last week, and for the third straight entry, Cheap Tunes Tuesday is paying respects to a legend. This post is dedicated to the memory of Bill Withers 1938-2020.
William Harrison Withers Jr. was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia in July of 1938. It was a small coal-mining town, and his dad was one of the many hard-working miners. Mom worked as a maid and took care of Bill who was the youngest of six children. He was born with a stutter and later indicated he had a very hard time fitting in as a child. William Sr. passed away when Bill was 13 years old and led to Bill joining the United States Navy at 17. Bill would go on to serve nine years, and it was during that time he’d take an interest in writing songs and singing.
When he left the service in 1965, Bill relocated to Los Angeles to start a music career. He worked for various companies to support recording demo tapes with his own money. Bill started shopping his demo around town and performing at local clubs to gain notoriety.
In the early 70’s, Withers had a demo tape that was viewed positively by Clarence Avant, owner of Sussex Records. He was signed to a deal and Booker T. Jones was assigned to produce the new record. From there, the problems started early. Four three-hour recording sessions were abruptly turned into three due to budget constraints—and there was a six-month gap between sessions two and three. Finally Just As I Am was released in May of 1971.
The album featured the hit single “Ain’t No Sunshine”—which would end up at #280 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs—but Bill he refused to quit his day job, knowing how fickle the music business was. The cover art was simply Bill posing in front of his day job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank, California. Since Bill was a true solo artist, Booker T. played keyboard and guitar for the record, and top-tier session men like Donald Dunn, Al Jackson and Stephen Stills came in to contribute as well. The album didn’t dominate the charts, or sell million of copies, but perhaps earned the biggest thing one can achieve: ultimate respect from critics and the industry across the board.
Withers style quite simply was something that most people hadn’t heard to that point. Sure, you could lump his music in with other soul and folk-rock artists, but Bill did in such a way that was new and refreshing. He had no frills, no hooks, just a great voice and storytelling ability that sucked you in. He sang with such emotion and connected with the listener that power ballads like “Ain’t No Sunshine” made you feel like you had gone through the same pain Bill had.
Bill would go on to win a Grammy Award for that song, and two others in his esteemed career. His legacy was so incredible, partially because Bill worked for only fifteen years as a musician before he quit to move on to other occupations, and yet was still inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bill had this uncanny ability to take any song and make it feel refreshed. On this album alone he remade “Let It Be” by The Beatles and “Everybody’s Talkin’” made popular by Harry Nilsson. Whatever he did caught everyone’s eye and earned such respect and was enamored by people from all walks of life. Sadly, he passed away on March 30 from heart complications, leaving behind a devastated family. Please pay tribute today to one of my favorites and pick up Just As I Am. RIP Bill.
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