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Bill Withers is the Bomb

July 29, 2014

Bill WithersA couple of weeks ago, my husband and I watched a BBC documentary on 1970s R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers.

And it was nothing like what I expected.

Little of his incredible music was featured – which is strange considering his long list of hits, including Lean on Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Grandma’s Hands, Just the Two of Us and an impressive list of lesser known, beautifully written songs that hit the tops of the R&B charts. Music that confounded the record industry because it didn’t focus on the usual trinity of romantic love, sex and dance to seduce an audience.

Bill Withers songs were more often about friendship, grief, or an old lady he adored. But the pop-loving, disco-dancing public embraced them anyway.

“You have no idea how good you are,” he was told by one producer.

But the documentary focused on the man, not the art, and I found myself utterly moved.

Now, “moved” is not a word I most often associate with musicians and other celebrities. I’m not a fame junkie and I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been interested in obtaining an autograph from anyone living or dead.

But if there is one artist I’d like to share a coffee with on my porch, it would be Bill Withers.

Not because I love his music – although I do. I can just call up his music on the iPod, though, you know? It’s not because of his rural, hard-scrabble childhood in West Virginia – even if I do have a thing for West Virginia. Or the fact that he rose above a significant stuttering problem and the racism of his era. Those are all great things, mind you, but lots of successful people have had to overcome massive obstacles. Ones that make it hard for some folks just to get out of bed in the morning, let alone rise to the top of a hugely competitive profession.

What most impressed me about Bill Withers was his quiet demeanor. Here was a nuanced, unassuming man who wasn’t pretending to be humble – he wasn’t pretending anything. He just was what he was – a human being with soul-freeing talent that doesn’t come at you, but takes you into its arms.

As we sat glued to the screen, my husband and I saw no star sitting zen-like in his overly engineered life, spewing talking points about his commitment to the environment, or the rain forest, or other worthy causes his people have briefed him on. Causes that are actually being addressed hands-on by scientists, missionaries, companies and non-profits. Bill Withers doesn’t seem to go for that BS, but he doesn’t judge it either, or sit above it.

Bill Withers just sits in his comfortable, but homey house in California – watching TV and hanging out with his friends or his pretty wife and family. The only extravagances visible are the occasional Jacob Lawrence painting, which you’d swear was just a framed print given the unassuming nature of the house that surrounds it. And there’s a music studio, too, where Withers and his lovely daughter make music together.

When he hears her sing, he cries.

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12 Comments
  1. How odd. I’ve been singing that last song this morning to one of my puppies.
    Bill’s the bomb – thanks for digging this up. 🙂

  2. I love his music … and it is SO refreshing to realize he’s an “average joe” like the rest of us. That shows the true character of the person behind the music I think.

  3. Ain’t no sunshine…….on a loop in my head now!

  4. I got to see this documentary several years ago, when it was released at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival in CA. I was also very surprised, moved, and delighted. We lost a great voice when Bill Withers passed. Thanks for posting!

  5. What a sweet post. Like you, I never think of celebrity. Actually, I only received my first autograph in February, and the star gave it to me, I didn’t ask for it. That was such a sweet gesture on his part–when he found out I was an author he took my book & autograph. In return he gave me his autograph & album. It is inspiring meeting people like Bill & my new friend. Celebrities who stay grounded and in tune, literally and metaphorically. Thank you for posting this! Love it! xo

  6. Thanks, Hun, and you’re right, it’s always such a pleasant surprise when a celeb comes off as a real person. I didn’t put it in the post, but Bill Withers said, “It’s amazing how much better lookin’ you get when you have some success.” He said it with a smile, of course.

  7. A real person who makes beautiful music.

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