This interview with Bill Withers, originally conducted years ago, first ran on Rock Cellar in 2015. In light of Withers’ passing, we’re bringing it back as a snapshot of the man’s impeccable legacy of timeless music.
Soul. It’s elusive. It’s intangible. It’s a hugely desired commodity. It’s what separates the men from the boys. It’s magic. And you either have it or you don’t.
One man who personifies the essence of soul is the legendary Bill Withers, who will (finally) be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month.
Revered in music circles as one of the most seminal and influential artists in soul and R&B, Bill Withers didn’t have to work it…he plain had it.
Raised in Beckley, West Virginia, Bill Withers’ path to stardom was an unlikely success story. After an almost decade stint in the Navy, in 1967, Withers relocated to L.A. where he spent 9-5 toiling in an airplane factory plant. At night and on weekends, battered pawnshop guitar in hand, Withers woodshedded, mixing the stylistic ingredients that would create his own unique musical stew of soul, R&B, gospel and folk.
Laying down a series of demos, which garnered zero interest from the record biz, Withers was disheartened and almost ready to quit. Finally, on the brink of giving up on music altogether, fate intervened, as it often does, and Withers was signed to Sussex Records.
Under the adroit production supervision of Booker T Jones, and augmented by exquisite backing courtesy of Booker T & The MG’s and guest musician, Stephen Stills, Withers recorded his debut solo LP, Just As I Am.
Released in 1971, the record is a model of uncompromised aesthetic purity and elegant simplicity, and today is recognized as a quintessential soul classic.
Firebranded by Withers’ impassioned vocals, arresting and topical lyrics and a volley of classic songs, Just As I Am clearly reflected the singularly distinctive work of an original. It also deeply connected with the public at large, sending “Ain’t No Sunshine” soaring to a # 3 placing and in the process, earning Withers a Grammy for Best R&B song.
Following upon the ecstatic critical and public appraisal of his solo debut, Withers released 1972’s Still Bill, which contained not one but two watershed moments in soul, the chart topping Lean On Me and # 2 smash, Use Me. Withers continued to carve out chart success in the Seventies and Eighties with the # 2 hit, Just The Two Of Us (another Grammy win for Best R&B song), a duet with Grover Washington Jr, and a string of well -received albums, Live At Carnegie Hall, + ‘Justments, Making Music, Naked & Warm, Menagerie, ‘Bout Love, and his last studio release, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me.
And today, Withers is once again back in the spotlight thanks to his forthcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Below, enjoy an interview with Withers from a few years back, putting his career in context …
Rock Cellar: Decades after its release, your debut album Just As I Am is hailed as a classic. Listening back to the record, can you explain why it still connects and resonates?
Bill Withers: First of all I don’t listen to that stuff that much. I don’t know. It’s like, I learned a long time ago when I was growing up and the girls that I wanted to like me never did. Probably because some of the things were not connected to any particular time or genre. It’s like if you made something that was distinctly disco then it would probably be most functional during that time.
I think the style that we did was kinda folky, whatever you wanna call it. The people that were involved from Booker T Jones to Stephen Stills, you’ve got some genres covered right there. And then Graham Nash sat it front of me encouraging me. The subject matter too. Grandma’s Hands was on that record right? I mean Grandma’s ain’t never gonna go out of style. Kanye West said, “Is there anybody here that didn’t like their grandmother?” He said, “Sometimes you don’t like your mom, but everybody likes their grandmother” (laughs).
Rock Cellar: How many years did it take before you found success?
Bill Withers: I came to L.A. in ’67. It might have taken like three, four years to get noticed. I wasn’t really pounding away on the pavement like people who have showed themselves to be driven like Jennifer Lopez and Kanye West who just need it. I was already in my thirties. I had already been socialized in a whole other world until this was more like, ‘Let me take a whack at this and see if I can pull this off.’
Every Sunday you’ve got like forty million guys watching the football game, right? So all these guys are sitting around on the couch with their beer and maybe ten thousand of these guys think ‘I could probably play quarterback better than that guy.’ Three of them probably could. So if you use that analogy, I was one of those three guys sitting around saying, ‘I think I could do this music thing, it doesn’t look like the most impossible thing in the world to do’ so I kinda took my whack at it and it worked out for me.
Rock Cellar: Do you view yourself more as a songwriter than an artist?
Bill Withers: I never was able to separate the two, since I never did it any other way. It’s like asking somebody who’s ambidextrous, ‘are you right handed or left-handed?”
Probably now I would think of myself more on the songwriting side but there’s a reason for that. Because at this age I don’t really need that kind of vanity. I’m not trying to attract girls or anything. But at that age I probably felt I could find more use for the attention I would get as a singer.
Rock Cellar: Discuss Booker T. Jones’ contribution to the production and performance on Just As I Am.
Bill Withers: Booker T was actually absolutely perfect for me. There couldn’t have been a better person to shepherd me into this whole thing. I didn’t and still don’t know an F sharp from Ninth Street and I don’t care.
To me it either sounds good or it doesn’t. Booker knew who to bring into the studio. He was able to bring in people like Stephen Stills. Plus Booker’s very bright. He’s also not obnoxious. He’s a gentle soul. He was perfect for me. If somebody would have brought in some loud, overly aggressive producer type guy who was full of himself, that wouldn’t have worked for me at all.
Rock Cellar: How did you come to write “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and did you know it was special?
Bill Withers: I was watching a movie called The Days Of Wine And Roses with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both battling alcoholism. And at one point one of them would be up and one of them would be down. They kept leaving each other. Then I looked out of the window and probably a bird ate a peanut and that just crossed my mind (laughs).
The song was written pretty quickly. It’s a very short song anyway. It has no introduction. They put it on the B-side of another song because they didn’t think it was suitable. When you put out singles, in those days you put what you thought you’re never gonna need again on the B-side. The people turned it over and started playing it. How many songs can you think of that have no instrumental introduction and just ‘Bam’, somebody starts singing?
And then not only that, a song that has no words in the chorus, just ‘I know, I know, I know”. In fact, I was gonna write something in there and Booker said, “Nope, just keep it like that.” The song has no introduction and a two word chorus. I think people still like “Ain’t No Sunshine” because a lot of people left a lot of people in there (laughs). More people get left than wanna admit it and they can identity with the song. Years ago somebody told me this, it might not have been true, they found this person who had committed suicide somewhere in Northern California. Remember those old forty-five record players that would just keep playing over and over again? They kept hearing “Aint’ No Sunshine” over and over ago. They broke in there and the guy had killed himself listening to that song.
The only thing that I thought was special when we did that album was telling Booker T about Grandma’s Hands. I said, “If anybody remembers me, they’re gonna remember me for this.” And now when people come up to me, they usually sing “Grandma’s Hands.”
Johnny Cash came to see me once in Hawaii and I was surprised Johnny Cash knew who I was. He said, “I’d like to meet your Grandmother”.
Rock Cellar: Paul McCartney covered that song in the 90’s. Could you ever imagine in 1971 when you recorded a version of “Let It Be” for your debut album that twenty something years later McCartney would be doing a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine”?
Bill Withers: First of all I couldn’t have even imagined then that Paul McCartney would even know that I existed. That was very interesting. I liked his version. I like anybody’s version of something that I’ve written because it’s another point of view.
Women will ask you constantly, ‘how do I look?” Constantly they ask you that. You can go out with the most beautiful woman in he world and before the evening is over, she’s gonna ask you, ‘do you think I’m pretty?’ Everybody’s told her she was pretty from the day she was born so most of us even though we don’t admit it, we all want to know how we appear to somebody else.
So when somebody covers one of your songs it’s sort of reassuring that the appearance you gave to them made enough of an impression on them that they wanted to interpret it for themselves.
Rock Cellar: Discuss your guitar style, you’ve described it as very limited but it works perfectly for your songs.
Bill Withers: I don’t really play the guitar. What I do on the guitar probably most school children could do. I have to tell you a funny story. Years ago, Gibson wanted me to endorse guitars. So you get a free guitar and there are some benefits to that so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ So then they invited me to this thing in Indianapolis. They had all these guitar players there like Les Paul and B.B. King (laughs), they had some real guitar players there.
I get there and the guy says, “We need you to go up and jam with those guys.” I started laughing (laughing), “I said, “I can’t play this thing. I mean I just use it to accompany myself in the most basic fashion.” I couldn’t afford a piano living in apartments like I was. It’s too loud, makes too much noise. The cheapest instrument I could find was a hundred-dollar acoustic guitar.
If you research it, very few songs that live in the minds of people are written by virtuoso musicians. The things that they do are too complicated.
There’s an almost inverse ratio between virtuosity and popularity. The form of music that requires the most virtuosity and dexterity would be jazz. It’s a wonderful form of music but it’s just a little too complicated for most people’s listening taste. So then the most popular forms of music are not that difficult to play. Simplicity is directly related to availability for most people.
We have the best times when it’s simple, people are just laughin’ and talkin’. Fewer people will have a good time in a lecture about physics than they will at a barbecue. And the good time increases when they have a few drinks, which makes them a little bit more stupid and keeps things a little simpler.
So for a form like I do, simplicity was an asset because the simplicity increased the probability of availability for most listeners, as a songwriter and musician. As a lyricist I think I was pretty good at saying things that are difficult to say in a simpler form. If you listen to a song like Hello Like Before, that certainly is not overly simplistic.
In fact, I’ve never heard anybody say that phrase before or since but you know what it means, right? I think we use whatever is available to us. Some people are appealing because they have this physical beauty, other people are appealing because of their energy and other people are appealing because they’re dark and mysterious. Whatever you can work to draw attention to yourself that’s what you use.
Rock Cellar: Recall how you came to write your lone number one hit, “Lean On Me.”
Bill Withers: I remember writing “Lean On Me.” Since I’d started I made a little bit of money and I figured I could afford a little piano. So I bought one of those Wurlitzer pianos. I screwed the legs on it and sat down and just started running my hands up and down. That’s a song that most children find is the first song that they learn to play because you don’t have to change your fingers. You just go up and down.
Then the lyrics are what crossed my mind. If somebody was asking me what kind of technique I use, you just are and something crosses your mind sometimes. The message of the lyrics are just what it says. That’s what I wanted to day. As to why I wanted to say it. It was an accumulation of subtle things that had buried themselves in my psyche over time. I think that would be the best explanation of why you would call something a gift is when something occurs to you, like in “Lean On Me,” and you don’t know why.
If I knew why, I’d get up every morning and I’d push that song button and I would do it every day. And I would just dominate the whole genre. I’ve always said that I think that some of the best stories about how songs are written are made up after the song is written and people start asking you how did you do it. That’s just my little private theory. So the song lyrically deals with the two positions that people find themselves in most often.
One of the most noble and self-fulfilling things to do in your life is to be able to offer help to somebody ‘cause it does wonders for your ego.
It makes you the stronger half of something. The other is people who are in need of help and want to believe that there are people who care enough to give it. When you do that EKG exam and the thing is going up and down, very seldom are our lives in that middle position where we don’t need to give or receive help. Sometimes we need to give help just to validate some kind of importance we need to feel. Sometimes we need help because we find ourselves in that position.
The only reason anybody remembers my name is the things that I did grew over time. I never did anything that made this huge, instant impact. In fact, some of the songs that my record company might have complained about when I turned them in, over the last thirty years become like part of the landscape.
I got some complaints when I turned in “Lean On Me,” not from my immediate record company but from the parent record company. There’s a very famous record executive who is no longer with us, his response to my Still Bill album was, “Who let you got in and do this stuff?”
Everybody was thinking boy, girl stuff and I’ve gotten away with songs like “Lean On Me” and “Grandma’s Hands” that don’t have anything to do with romantic love. Romantic love is the most fickle thing in the world. The consistent kind of love is that kind that will make you go over and wipe mucus and saliva from somebody’s face after they become brain dead. Romantic love you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically. The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.
Rock Cellar: You must be proud that “Lean On Me” means so much to people.
Bill Withers: Yeah. It certainly would fall into the category of things that I was not sorry that I did (laughs). What’s interesting to me is all the places I’ve run into “Lean On Me.” I remember visiting a prison and happening to walk by and the prison choir was practicing and they were singing that song. They didn’t’ know I was there. I remember the kids put me in the sixth grade play when my son graduated from elementary school.
I had to sing “Lean On Me” with the kids. They got me there (laughs). From prisons to churches to children situations where I’ve run into that song. After this amount of time that song has sort of ingrained itself where it almost seems like something that doesn’t particularly belong to me. It’s like it was something that was there before I got here. If you ask somebody they might tell you that “Lean On Me“ was a hundred years old.
Rock Cellar: “Use Me,” another of your classics, embodies the best of soul and funk.
Bill Withers: That’s fun stuff. That’s just talkin’ trash. That’s just a song about being a little playful, a little arrogant and a little cool. Unless you were one of those people that were born popular, I was a chronic stutterer until I was twenty-eight. I avoided the phone. So I wasn’t this popular guy. I remember being young and I would have girls tell me, “You’re too nice.” I didn’t understand that.
What kind of twisted world are we in? Women like bad boys, I guess. There is no more confusing form of rejection than for somebody to tell you that you’re not interesting to them because you’re too nice.
So over the course of time, you say okay, you wanna play, okay, let’s play? Use Me taps into that. I tried to be nice, now let’s get nasty. That song came quick. I was working in McDonald Douglas out in Long Beach and the noise of the factory, they had some women working there. I crossed that line there thinking, “You all want a nasty boy? Well here I come.” (laughs).
Rock Cellar: What are the elements that make a great song?
Bill Withers: I’m gonna give you answer you probably don’t expect. I think the greatness of a song is directly proportionate to how many people wanna think it is and how long they think it is. I mean, you’ve got all kind of stuff that becomes hit.
“Disco Duck” was a hit. But it was only useful during that time. When a lot of people find use for something over a long period of time that means it’s a great song. It’s a subjective thing anyway; it’s not like sports where you keep score by points. It’s like who appreciates it.
People who like one genre of music might not appreciate a great song in another genre of music. Let’s take a great country song like Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times.” It’s a great song but somebody whose taste is hip-hop, they might not sit there long enough to hear it. Or some of that fun stuff that Dr. Dre does like “California Love,” that is a great song in that genre. But somebody whose taste is jazz wouldn’t want to hear that. So it’s all so subjective. The only way we can assign any kind of rating to it is if lasts over the years.
Rock Cellar: You’ve been blessed to have had quite a few songs last and endure over many decades.
Bill Withers: Yeah, that’s probably what I like about what I did more than anything else. There still seems to be some use for my songs. I was tickled pink when Kanye West used a sample on his album of my song Rosie that wasn’t really released. It was a demo and it was added on to one of those endless greatest hits of mine.
A few years ago the group Blackstreet had a song called “No Diggity,” which was a big hit and they used a sample of “Grandma’s Hands.”
It’s just satisfying when something can live on. The best thing I can say about anybody’s songs is if I wish I had written it. I wish I had written “For The Good Times” by Kris Kristofferson. I wish I had written all of the Chuck Berry songs, which I thought were lyrically brilliant, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, I mean, come on man, Chuck Berry was a brilliant lyricist for that genre!
I wish I had written “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And all those Burt Bacharach, Hal David songs like “A House Is Not A Home.” Another song I wish I had written is Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are.” I mean, come on man!
Rock Cellar: Lastly, pick a song or two of yours that you’re most proud of.
Bill Withers: Probably “Grandma’s Hands” because I probably would have written the same song when I was five-years old and I would have written the same song now had I not written it already. For the originality and the approach I would say “Hello Like Before” or maybe “Memories Are That Way,” things that I did because I wanted to do them.
I knew that nobody was gonna grab them and start playing them on the radio. But those still hold up for me today. I ran into Steve Harvey and he started reciting words to me from “You Just Can’t Smile It Away.” (Recites words) “It’s much more than passion, it’s love and I’ve seen some people say they’ve seen love move mountains.”
The poetry of that is probably more important to me than songs somebody might be more familiar with.