Bill Withers, whose songs like “Lean On Me,” “Just The Two of Us,” and “Lovely Day” are staples in soul music and beyond, has died from heart complications, his family told The Associated Press on Friday (April 3). He was 81.
In the statement, his family praised the legendary singer-songwriter for his work and dedication to his loved ones. “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. 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,” the family statement read. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Between 1971 and 1989, Withers released eight studio albums, one live album and garnered three Grammys for his powerful songs that gave hope and love to fans to this day. Born on July 3, 1938, he overcame a stutter as the youngest of six children in Slab Fork, West Virginia. The death of his father at 13 would later inspire him to join the Navy at 18 but a gleam of wonder followed him as he grew curious about songwriting.
After serving for several years, Withers relocated to Los Angles in hopes of starting a music career in 1967. During this time, he worked in an aircraft parts factory and penned “Ain’t No Sunshine.” In 1971, he signed to Sussex Records, owned by Clarence Avant. Withers worked with legendary composer and artist Booker T. Jones to release his debut album, Just As I Am. “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” were clear standouts on the album as well as its cover. The photo used was taken during Withers lunch break at the aviation factory.
He didn’t face a sophomore slump as the 1972 release of Still Bill gifted the world the gospel smash, “Lean On Me.” The track would go on to win a belated Grammy as Best R&B song in 1987 and gain bigger popularity when it was featured in Morgan Freeman’s 1989 film, Lean On Me.
But as rich as his music was, the market was in demand for more big disco hits. At the same time, Sussex Records faced bankruptcy, with Withers moving to Columbia Records after the release of his third album, +’Justments. “Lovely Day” would arrive on 1977’s Menagerie, which went gold.
As executives vied for pop tunes, Withers grew uneasy about changing his sound. He walked away from the industry as an artist but continued to create his own way. His courageous spirit is what would go on to inspire millions, pivot soul music in the 70s and ironically bring to life a string of future hip-hop and R&B classics from the likes of Teddy Riley, Justin Timberlake, Tupac Shakur and Will Smith.
His music has been sampled and covered by on tracks like Black Street’s “No Diggity,” Will Smith’s version of “ Just The Two Of Us, ” Black Eyed Peas’ “Bridging The Gap,” Twista’s “Sunshine,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Let Me Ride” by Dr. Dre, “Roses” by Kanye West, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” by pop star Shawn Mendes and more.
Timberlake, who celebrated Withers’ legacy during 2010’s ASCAP Expo conference and the 2017 Academy Awards, shared how “Can’t Stop The Feeling” was influenced by “Lovely Day.” He’s also received his flowers ten times over from his peers and more inspired by him like Ed Sheeran and John Legend.
In 2015, Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. “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,” Withers told Rolling Stone that same year.
He is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and singer Kori.