Bill Withers’ As He Is
by Walter Price
Slab Fork, WV’s man of soul intrigue Bill Withers famously walked away from the music business in the mid 80’s shunning a short but incredible career that is still paying off to this day. A career that found an everyday man, a military veteran and later a milkman, factory worker taking his chances in the music business in part after seeing what sort of female admiration Lou Rawls was garnering at a night club appearance.
The self-taught musician set his sights and never looked back. Writing hit after hit like “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean On Me”, “Grandma’s Hands” and “Heartbreak Road” to name a few delights. Then after a label folding and a transfer to a major label hellish stint, he walked away from it all.
Men who from the get go wanted to control every aspect of his career had found himself at the hands of (alleged) racism, seemly bazaar label requests on song choices and album constructions that didn’t set well with the hard-nosed DIYer before there was a name for it.
This is now and 25 years away from being in the business in any form of fulltime and recently being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the likes of Joan Jett, Green Day, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ringo. The formerly cantankerous (allegedly) songwriter is in his 70’s, happily married to Marcia, who also runs his publishing company, and they live a calm unassuming life in West Hollywood.
I know a good part of this info due to my lifelong interest in the man that wrote songs that seemed simple (he’d agree) and resonated with masses. As a teen I was on my way to wanting to do something with myself and here was this guy who seemed to have it all and said, “No thanks” and went incognito. Later in life when the bio-picks were hitting their strides and winning awards in high gloss Hollywood style I always wondered why not one about Bill Withers. His story is as fascinating as anyone’s and he has tracks as good if not better than most to fill a smash hit soundtrack.
And the extra this and that’s I learned reading an amazing Rolling Stone article by Andy Greene; an article that could easily serve as the blueprint for the third act in the before mentioned fantasized bio-pic or a mini documentary for that matter.
Here are a few excerpts that sparked a renewed interest and appreciation for the man that overcame huge obstacles, took extraordinary chances, had it made in showbiz, turned his back on the nonsense and ended up with more than any of one can ever expect or dream of, happiness, respect and with his dignity intact. “A complete human” being as Withers once said.
“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.”
Others don’t believe he is who he says: “One Sunday morning I was at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. These church ladies were sitting in the booth next to mine. They were talking about this Bill Withers song they sang in church that morning. I got up on my elbow, leaned into their booth and said, ‘Ladies, it’s odd you should mention that because I’m Bill Withers.’ This lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You’re too light-skinned to be Bill Withers!’ ”
Early Life Racism:
“When you stutter, people have a tendency to disregard you,” he says. That was compounded by the unvarnished Jim Crow racism that was a way of life in his youth. “One of the first things I learned, when I was around four, was that if you make a mistake and go into a white women’s bathroom, they’re going to kill your father.” He was a teenager when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was beaten to death by two men who were cleared of all charges by an all-white jury. “[Till] was right around my age,” says Withers. “I thought, ‘Didn’t he know better?’ ”
He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. One of the first things he came up with was a simple chord progression: “I didn’t change fingers. I just went one, two, three, four, up and down the piano. It was the first thing I learned to play. Even a tiny child can play that.”
“Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema,” says Withers. “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”
Withers was extremely uneasy until Graham Nash walked into the studio. “He sat down in front of me and said, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ ” Withers says. “I’ll never forget it.” They laid down the basic tracks for what became 1971’s Just As I Am in a few days.
Career Racism (alleged, former Columbia A&R Mickey Eichner disptes this claim and otheres):
Things got worse when Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period,’ ” says Withers. “I am proud of myself because I did not hit him. I met another executive who was looking at a photo of the Four Tops in a magazine. He actually said to me, ‘Look at these ugly niggers.’ ”
Withers’ 1980 hit “Just the Two of Us” was a duet with Grover Washington Jr. on Elektra – “That was a ‘kiss my ass’ song to Columbia,” says Withers. The low point came during the sessions for his last album, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me. “They made me record that album at some guy’s home studio,” he says. “This stark-naked five-year-old girl was running around the house, and they said to her, ‘We’re busy. Go play with Bill.’ Now, I’m this big black guy and they’re sending a little naked white girl over to play with me! I said, ‘I gotta get out of here. I can’t take this shit!’ ”
There is certainly a difference between being a character and having character but when the stars align just right, you will find a person that manages both. Two other important things any music maker can and should take from this is A) Write good songs & B) Don’t take shit from anybody when it comes to your career. Legacy, dignity, integrity and perhaps happiness will follow.
Andy Greene @
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