Bill Withers, known for writing and singing timeless classics like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, according to The Associated Press. He was 81.
A 2015 inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a 2007 inductee in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, Withers was a three-time Grammy Award winner. He won his first Grammy in 1971 for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” another in 1981 for “Just the Two of Us,” and the third in 1987 for “Lean on Me.”
Withers, who was born in Slab Fork, Raleigh County, died of heart complications, according to a statement his family sent to the AP.
Michael Lipton, the director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, said Withers was, in many ways, the inspiration for the state’s music hall. Withers was among the first class of inductees and came to the inaugural induction ceremony in 2007. He also attended three other induction ceremonies, Lipton said, and always asked what the organization needed from him, ready and willing to lend a hand however he could.
“He was an incredible man,” Lipton said. “He was wise. He had a very keen mind and a keen wit, and a sharp wit. He had a lot of humility.
“He was really, in a way, a quintessential West Virginian. He was folksy and smart. He was smart in some unorthodox ways, and he had a clever sense of humor. He wasn’t taken by the glitz.”
Lipton was in Cleveland when Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The morning after the induction ceremony, Withers hosted a brunch that was only attended by West Virginians.
Withers was the youngest of six children and was raised in Beckley by his mother’s family after his parents divorced. His father worked in the coal mines and died when Withers was 13. Withers told Rolling Stone he joined the Navy when he was 17 to get out of Slab Fork. He served in the Navy for nine years and worked around aircraft. He also used that time to overcome a stutter.
After leaving the service, he took a job at an aircraft parts factory. He started his music career then.
“He was not driven, I don’t think, to be a rock and roll star,” Lipton said. “All of that came about organically.”
Withers was in his early 30s when he signed his first record deal with Sussex Records in 1971 and put out his first album, “Just As I Am,” which featured songs such as “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Withers’ music career wasn’t drawn out over decades like some, but he was a prolific songwriter. He wrote hits including “Lovely Day,” “Who Is He [and What Is He To You?]” and “Just the Two of Us,” which he co-wrote with Ralph McDonald and William Salter.
Lipton said Withers guided his career in an interesting way and that, when he felt it was time for him to retire, he did. People tried to get him to sing after that, but Withers declined. Now others would sing his songs, and they have.
His work has been covered by Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Sting, Diana Ross and others. His songs have been sampled by artists like Will Smith, who used “Just the Two of Us” for his own “Just the Two of Us,” and Blackstreet, who used “Grandma’s Hands” for “No Diggity.”
“I don’t think, sadly, there are many people like him — many people who have that big picture of humanity,” Lipton said. “That’s what musicians leave, they leave a legacy of music. He left some songs that sound just as fresh and just as interesting as they did in the late ’70s, and, in a way, more so because they’re kind of an antidote to what’s going on in the world.”
Lipton said he believed “Lean on Me” should be an anthem, not just now that Withers is gone, but for when hard times come.
“I can certainly imagine a lot of people listening to what he had to say,” Lipton said. “He had some profound things to say.”
When Lipton called Withers to tell him that he’d be among the first class inducted to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and to ask if he’d come to the ceremony, Withers responded that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. Lipton said that was when they realized that a person, even as well known as Withers, being recognized in their home state would be important to that person.
Bob Thompson, a local musician and member of the Bob Thompson Unit, met Withers at the inaugural state music hall induction ceremony.
“I just loved his music,” Thompson said. “He left us with such great songs. His musical style was all his own. He was so honest and true. I guess that’s why it was so popular.”
Thompson said Withers began playing the opening to “Lean on Me” on the piano at one of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. He then looked to Thompson to take over the song.
“It was a unique experience for me,” Thompson said.
“His music is going to last for a long time because it was so truthful and honest,” he said. “A cross between rural soul and blues and an urban sound. It’s a mixture that reaches everyone.”