Bill Withers, the soul singer and songwriter behind such beloved ’70s hits as “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” has died at the age of 81, his family confirmed to the Associated Press. According to his family, Withers died of heart complications, not coronavirus.
“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 said in a statement. “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.”
Born in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1938, Withers enlisted with the U.S. Navy at age 17 and spent nine years as an aircraft mechanic. Even after he left the service and moved to Los Angeles, Withers worked in an aircraft parts factory while recording music demos in his free time. His 1971 debut album Just As I Am, which included his breakthrough single “Ain’t No Sunshine,” featured a photo of Withers holding a lunch box at his day job at Weber Aircraft in Burbank. “Ain’t No Sunshine” won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song, an award Withers would win two more times: For 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. that would later be famously covered by Will Smith, and for Club Nouveau’s 1987 cover of “Lean On Me.”
Withers found music fame later in life than most (he was 32 when his debut album was released) which gave him the freedom to walk away from music in the mid-80s when it no longer suited him. After his initial label Sussex Records folded, Withers worked for Columbia Records for a few years but was uneasy with the corporate executives. “Just the Two Of Us” was actually recorded on Washington Jr.’s label Elektra; in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview, Withers described it as a ‘kiss my ass’ song to Columbia.” Withers walked away from music in 1985 and never looked back, though in 2015 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in,” Withers told Rolling Stone. “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 is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd, and Kori.
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