Bill Withers Dies at 81

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Bill Withers, seen here addressing the crowd at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Oct. 1, 2015, died on March 30 at age 81.

(Photo: Adam McCullough)

Singer-songwriter Bill Withers died on March 30 in Los Angeles due to heart complications, according to a family statement provided to the Associated Press. He was 81.

Withers was known for hit songs that had tremendously wide appeal, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Just The Two Of Us”—a duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.

Among his honors were three Grammy Awards and induction into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005). He was the subject of Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s 2009 documentary, Still Bill.

Survivors include his wife, Marcia, and two children.

Below is a concert review by journalist Allen Morrison that DownBeat originally posted on Oct. 6, 2015.

Withers Returns to Spotlight for Carnegie Hall Tribute

Is there a happier refugee from the music business than singer-songwriter Bill Withers? The ex-Navy aircraft mechanic from dirt-poor Slab Fork, West Virginia, who got his first record contract in his thirties, was never a showbiz kid. He famously distrusted the business, keeping his day job as his first hit single, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” climbed the charts.

Withers went on to write more hits, including the ubiquitous “Lean On Me.” By October 1972, a mere 15 months after he quit his day job, Withers was playing the most famous stage in the country, a performance immortalized on the album Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall. Eventually he got disgusted with the record business, retired in 1985, and has lived contentedly at his home in the Hollywood Hills ever since, collecting a steady stream of royalties and, as he told Stephen Colbert recently, watching the TV show Judge Judy.

This has been a very good year for Withers. On April 18, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a formal ceremony that included a heartfelt speech by admirer Stevie Wonder. And on Oct. 1, almost precisely 43 years to the day after Withers’ initial Carnegie Hall show, he was the subject of an all-star tribute concert at the same venue, a benefit for the Stuttering Association for Youth, or SAY (Withers stuttered until his mid-twenties). The concert producers, including City Winery’s Michael Dorf, assembled a parade of first-class r&b, pop and jazz talent to perform the Withers songbook, including Gregory Porter, Branford Marsalis, Ed Sheeran, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Ledisi, Keb’ Mo’ and others.

One thing Withers does not do in retirement is sing. The last time he did so in public was at his Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 2005. At Carnegie Hall, there was considerable anticipation about whether he would break his silence. Introduced by Dorf before the concert, Withers greeted the crowd and briefly rapped along with a choir made up of SAY children, but left the audience in suspense about whether he would sing.

Keyboardist/bandleader Greg Phillinganes, just coming off his stint as music director for Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life tour, led a large orchestra, including a four-member horn section, eight-member string section, and a six-member rhythm section featuring Late Show with David Letterman veteran Felicia Collins on guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, and Steve Jordan on drums. Although the arrangements were spot-on, the concert was, unfortunately, not without sound problems. Carnegie Hall is unsurpassed for acoustic instruments, but on this night, depending on where you sat and the overall volume, booming drums and bass made some vocals hard to hear.

That was a shame because, as a songwriter, Withers has a devastating one-two punch: a knack for telling a story from the point of view of a plainspoken Everyman; and another for writing memorable melodies and funky r&b riffs.

Overall, songs and singers were expertly matched. McDonald’s soulful crooning was a perfect fit for the gentle groove of “Hello, Like Before” (when you could hear him). Powerhouse r&b singer Ledisi, however, had no trouble cutting through on what she described as “the best ‘Is you cheating?’ song I ever heard,” the devastating “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” McDonald returned later to sing an impassioned “Lean On Me,” backed by the SAY choir.

Dr. John, who gets a standing ovation these days just by showing up, came on stage resplendent in a purple suit, shades and a fedora festooned with feathers, to sing “Use Me.” For my money, Withers never composed a better song. It’s a killer combination of one of the funkiest Afro-Latin grooves ever written with an indelible lyric that riffs on a universal theme: how much abuse one person will tolerate if the physical relationship is steamy enough. Dr. John’s version doubled down on the funk, with the four horn players delivering the signature riff. Still, even the good doctor could not surpass Withers’ original Carnegie Hall version, in which the audience demanded and received a spontaneous encore.

Probably no one could sing the antiwar gospel anthem “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” better than the blues troubadour Keb’ Mo’. One of Withers’ best songs, it tells a Vietnam War story from the perspective of a soldier who has lost his right arm to enemy fire. Like Withers’ best songs, it’s straightforward, simple and profound. Keb’ Mo’ delivered the tale with emotional honesty and punctuated it with blistering blues guitar licks.

Porter sang twice, moving the crowd with a poignant duet with Valerie Simpson on the love ballad “Let Me Be The One You Need.” Sheeran offered a simple, superb “Ain’t No Sunshine,” backed by his guitar and the string section.

South African soul star Jonathan Butler sang Stevie-ish licks on the tender “Let Me In Your Life,” and two younger singers—Amos Lee (“Grandma’s Hands”) and Anthony Hamilton (“Better Off Dead”)—were warmly received. The retro r&b singer Aloe Blacc, who seems especially influenced by Withers’ easygoing soul, was smashingly effective on the bereft ballad “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” earning a standing ovation. Later, he returned to perform the 1981 hit “Just The Two Of Us,” with Marsalis playing the trademark Grover Washington, Jr. tenor solo, and leaving the audience wanting more.

Still the audience wondered, would Withers sing? At the end of the program, the entire cast came out to sing the midtempo soul-rocker, “I Wish You Well.” As the band hushed, Withers grabbed the mic and began a sly two-step, looking left and right, building suspense about whether he had, at long last, decided to sing. Finally dispensing with the charade, the answer was no, at least not tonight. Instead he spoke, expressing his gratitude: “I’m still amazed that all these young, great artists even know my name.” DB



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