Three-time Grammy Award winner Bill Withers, a singer-songwriter of music with lyrics and harmony carrying messages that stayed in the minds of many listening in an indelible way, has died at 81. Withers passed away in Los Angeles.
Withers’ family referenced a heart condition as the cause of his death and has not been linked to COVID-19.
His song ‘Lean on Me’ is one of the most popular in modern popular music and was judged to be one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine along with ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’
Withers soulful songs ‘Lean on Me,’ ‘Lovely Day’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ have now become standards heard for five decades in feature films and in the background of endless TV episodes.
Withers most recently appeared in the documentary The Black Godfather on Netflix. The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin, was a tribute to the life of influential music executive Clarence Avant and was released by Netflix last year. Avant detailed his association with Withers.
“I kept listening to him. I kept listening to Harlem and I kept listening to ‘Grandma’s Hands’—and you say to yourself: You didn’t hear many records with people talking about their grandmothers, but everybody has one. His records to me made so much common sense. It was like you were just talking to somebody. You listen to ‘Lean on Me.’ One of the songs he wrote that I still think is a great song talked about the Vietnam War,” influential music executive Clarence Avant said.
“All those kinds of things just resonated with me and I said wow this guy has got it,” Avant said of Withers. At the time Avant owned Sussex Records. Avant signed Withers and had Stax Records associate Booker T. Jones produce Withers’ first album. Withers later signed with Columbia Records.
Bill Withers was born on July 4, 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a coal-mining town. He recorded from 1970 until 1985 and his hits included ‘Lean on Me,’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ ‘Use Me,’ ‘Just the Two of Us,’ ‘Lovely Day,’ and ‘Grandma’s Hands.’ His life was the subject of the 2009 documentary film Still Bill and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
‘Lean on Me,’ was performed at the inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Withers married actress Denise Nicholas in 1973, but they divorced in 1974. In 1976, Withers married Marcia Johnson, and they had two children, Todd and Kori.
(Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist for NNPA and the host of the podcast BURKEFILE. She is also a political strategist as principal of Win Digital Media LLC. She may be contacted at <LBurke007@gmail.com> and on twitter at @LVBurke).