Bill Withers, the influential Grammy-winning soul singer-songwriter who scored four smash singles including the iconic ‘Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” has died. He was 81. His family told the Associated Press that he died Monday in Los Angeles from heart complications.
Withers broke out nationally with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which he also wrote and reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. Fueled by a melancholic groove and soulful vocal, it won the Grammy for Best R&B song — also scoring him noms for Best Pop Male Vocal and Best New Artist — and launched a relatively brief but memorable career. He would follow that up with “Grandma’s Hands,” a celebration of his grandmother, but it failed to crack the Top 40. Both were culled from his debut LP, Just as I Am, which was produced by Booker T. Jones of the M.G.’s.
But Withers’ sophomore album would prove to be his biggest.
Recorded at the legendary Record Plant in Los Angeles, Still Bill was released in May 1972. Its lead single was “Lean on Me,” an anthem of affirmation that topped the Hot 100 for three weeks that summer. Its lolling rhythm and comforting lyrics made it a stone classic, which later would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, as “Ain’t No Sunshine” would be.
The enduring song’s title was borrowed for the 1989 Morgan Freeman movie about the tough but devoted principal of an inner-city high school. It also has been revived in the coronavirus era as a beacon of strength in uncertain times.
“Lean on Me” was performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and that song and “Ain’t No Sunshine” both ranked in the 200s on Rolling Stone‘s 2004 list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
The tune was covered by the California group Club Nouveau in 1987, and their version hit No. 1 and won songwriter Withers a second Grammy for Best R&B song.
Withers’ next single, which he also wrote, was “Use Me,” another gold record that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart — kept from No. 1 by the likes of Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” and 12-year-old Michael Jackson’s “Ben.” The LP also went gold and reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
But the singer’s career hit a lull after that, and his next several albums and singles were minor hits at best. His next big hit was in 1977 with “Lovely Day,” which barely nicked the pop Top 30 stateside but was an R&B hit and made the top 10 in multiple European countries, including France, where it went to No. 1. It was spawned from Menagerie, which was Withers’ first gold album since Still Bill.
His follow-up long-player ‘Bout Love stiffed, but Withers had one more big hit up his sleeve. Withers co-wrote and sang on “Just the Two of Us,” which was recorded by Grover Washington. Reaching No. 2 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1981, it would land Withers his third Grammy for Best R&B song, also scoring noms for Song and Record of the Year.
But Withers next album, 1983’s Watching You Watching Me, stiffed, and he would quit the music industry a couple of years later. In 1988, Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand scored a UK hit with “Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix).”
Along with the Lean on Me movie, Withers’ songs have been used in more than 200 movies and TV shows, most recently in the pilot of NBC’s comedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and in Netflix’s Soundtrack. He also was a guest of Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show; performed on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special; and had his music featured in such classics series as WKRP in Cincinnati, The Wonder Years and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and films including Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Born on the Fourth of July 1938, in the coal-mining town Slab Fork, WV, Withers joined the Navy at 18 and would serve for nine years. In 1967 he moved to L.A. to pursue his music career. He married Room 222 actress Denise Nicholas in 1973, but they split the following year, Withers married Marcia Johnson in 1976, and they had two children, Todd and Kori.