(Excerpt from Rolling Stone Magazine, April 2015, By Andy Greene)
Join us for Lean on Me: Jose James Celebrates Bill Withers at the JAS Cafe
On a clear day you can see the Staples Center from Bill Withers’ house, which sits high in the hills above West Hollywood. Today, in about two hours, the Los Angeles basketball arena will host the Grammy Awards; every once in a while, a limo will rush through Withers’ neighborhood on its way to the event. But the 76-year-old Withers could not be less interested. He’s padding around his home wearing Adidas track pants, an old t-shirt with a drawing of a bus on it, and athletic sandals with blue socks. On the mantel in a hallway, there is a Best R&B Song award for 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” from the last time he attended the show, three decades ago; it sits next to two other Grammys, form 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and 1972’s “Lean on Me.” A few years after “Two of Us,” Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back. “These days,” he says, “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”
Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’ ”
His career lasted eight years by his own count; in that time, he wrote and recorded some of the most loved, most covered songs of all time. Withers was stunned in 2015 when he learned he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I see it as an award of attrition,” he says. “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
In his late twenties Withers He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough to record a crude demo. Withers shopped it around to major labels, which weren’t interested, but then he got a meeting with Clarence Avant, a black music executive who had recently founded the indie label Sussex. “[Withers’] songs were unbelievable,” Avant remembers. “You just had to listen to his lyrics. I gave him a deal and set him up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album.”
“Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” says Jones. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”
A November 1971 Tonight Show appearance helped propel “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the Top 10, and the follow-up, “Grandma’s Hands,” reached Number 42. Tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship called “Lean on Me.” Withers didn’t think much of it. “But the guys at the record company thought it was a single,” he says.
Withers was now a hot commodity, appearing on Soul Train and the BBC, and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall that was released as a live album. But he refused to hire a manager, insisting on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs to writing the liner notes to designing his album covers. And he was uhappy on the road.
Things got worse when Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. At Sussex, he had complete creative control over his music, but at Columbia he found himself in the middle of a large corporation that was second-guessing his moves. By 1985 he had enough and walked away from Columbia, and performing.
Withers hasn’t released a note of music since then, aside from a guest spot on a 2004 Jimmy Buffett song.