Bill Withers, soul icon behind 'Lean On Me,' dies at 81

Los Angeles (AFP) –


Bill Withers, the legendary performer who defined 1970s soul with timeless hits like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me" has died, his family said in a statement. He was 81 years old.

The Grammy-winning artist succumbed to heart complications, according to his family, which said it was "devastated" over the loss.

"A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other," they said.

"In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones."

The artist's recording career lasted just 14 years -- he released his final album in 1985 -- but his hits that melded gritty southern blues with smooth R&B have endured for decades as global classics, including "Lovely Day" and "Just the Two of Us."

The youngest of six, Withers was born on July 4, 1938 during the final years of the Great Depression in Slab Fork, West Virginia, in a segregated coal mining region.

As a child he struggled with a stutter, and in his teenage years enlisted in the US Navy and then worked as an aircraft mechanic.

It wasn't until his mid-30s that Withers began recording music.

"I can't play the guitar or the piano, but I made a career out of writing songs on guitars and piano," the artist told The New York Times in 2015.

"I never learned music. I just did it."

Withers moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and self-financed demos, releasing in 1971 his debut studio album "Just As I Am," which was produced by the influential Booker T. Jones.

Its single "Ain't No Sunshine" is now named among Rolling Stone's greatest songs of all time.

But the song that became an indelible smash was released on the B-side -- the artists and repetoire (A&R) promoters at Withers' label didn't think much of it.

"The disc jockeys, god bless 'em, turned it over, and that's how I got started," Withers told NPR in 2015.

"I call A&R 'antagonistic & redundant,' and that's why -- because they make those genius decisions like that."

- 'A better place' -

Rolling Stone dubbed Withers' second album "Still Bill" -- which included the now-standards "Lean on Me" and "Use Me" -- a "stone-cold masterpiece."

An ardent crusader for creative freedom, his disdain for labels was no secret.

"Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema," he told Rolling Stone. "Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man."

He released eight studio albums, and entered de-facto retirement in 1985 after releasing his final studio work, "Watching You Watching Me."

But his legacy continued to grow well after he left the industry, with many artists including A-listers like Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney covering his songs.

Withers also found love from hip hop artists eager to let samples of his hits power their raps, including Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur and Blackstreet, who with Dr. Dre and Queen Pen revived "Grandma's Hands" for the 1990s hit "No Diggity."

"I feel very flattered that my songs have become part of the American landscape," the artist, who kept a low profile as he aged, told Billborad in 2005.

"Probably, I should have been better. But all things considered, I did the best I could."

Withers entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and fellow soul icon Stevie Wonder inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

"He's the last African-American Everyman," Questlove, drummer for The Roots, told Rolling Stone magazine.

"Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen."

Tributes began pouring out to the late songwriter, whose death came amid stress over the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The Recording Academy dubbed Withers "remarkably impactful," as the Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson called him a "songwriter's songwriter" and John Legend tweeted that "life wouldn't be the same without him."

"Rest in power Bill Withers," tweeted R&B star Lenny Kravitz. "Your voice, songs, and total expression gave us love, hope, and strength."

"My soul always has & always will be full of your music... you carried us all to a better place."