ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award: Bill Withers

heritageASCAP Presents the Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award to Bill Withers for his Outstanding Achievements as a Songwriter and Artist
Whose Beautiful and Heartfelt Songs have Enriched Generations.

Tonight's ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award recipient is Bill Withers, the West Virginia-born songwriter and recording artist whose great hits have lasted because they are plainspoken, meaningful and universal. "Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone)" is the essence of love lost, "Lean on Me" speaks volumes on the subject of friendship and caring and "Just the Two of Us," "Grandma's Hands," "Lovely Day" and "Use Me" all resonate with relevance decades after their introduction. Withers had paid few music business dues when he broke through with his debut in 1971, but no one can accuse a man that spent nine years in the U.S. Navy, and later worked as a milkman and an aircraft mechanic of being an overnight sensation. About 33 when his first album, Just as I Am, was issued during a time when few new music stars were over thirty, Withers and his mature but funky sound stood out, touching audiences white and black.

Withers, inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, has been largely absent from the music scene for the past two decades. While he has pursued less public interests, Withers' music is frequently revived – in films and TV programs, in commercials, in cover versions – Club Nouveau's 1987 version of "Lean on Me" was an across the board smash – and samples.

Withers recently sat down to speak about his music career. Now in his late 60s, he seems to miss neither the pleasures nor the pressures of the life of a music star. Still, while he seems in no hurry at all to make a comeback as a performer, he didn't dismiss the idea. Withers was relaxed, philosophical and humorous as he looked back on a most interesting life.

Growing up in West Virginia, did you have serious ambitions to be a performer?
I was a stutterer, really chronic. I had asthma and I was small for my age. So, I didn't kick up much of a fuss growing up.

Were you involved with music at all back there?
You know, there were always four guys trying to harmonize, so, since I wasn't built for football, that's what I did – harmonized with my friends. Whatever we heard in church or on the radio. There wasn't a lot of deep radio. Radio was mostly country & western or Frank Sinatra. If you grew up in a religious house, they didn't allow the blues in there. So, you'd just find whatever or you could listen to blues at somebody else's house; or the blues was always coming out of somebody's house. You could stand outside.

You were born in Slab Fork, West Virginia. Was it a rural place?
Slab Fork was a coal mining camp. In fact, it doesn't exist anymore. After I was 12 years old, I lived in a town called Beckley, which had, at that time, about 15,000 people. They've got a university there now, Mountain State University, and I was the commencement speaker in 2002.

BILL WITHERS TOP-10 SONGS

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"Ain't No Sunshine" (1971)
#2 Billboard Adult Contemporary
#3 Billboard Pop Singles
#6 Billboard Black Singles
GRAMMY AWARD – Best R&B Song
of the Year

"Lean on Me" (1972)
#1 Billboard Black Singles
#1 Billboard Pop Singles
#4 Billboard Adult Contemporary

"Use Me" (1972)
#2 Billboard Pop Singles
#2 Billboard Black Singles

"The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" (1974)
#10 Billboard Black Singles

"Make Love to Your Mind" (1976)
#10 Billboard Black Singles

"Lovely Day" (1978)
#6 Billboard Black Singles

"Just the Two of Us" (1981)
#2 Billboard Adult Contemporary
#2 Billboard Pop Singles
#3 Billboard Black Singles
GRAMMY AWARD – Best R&B Song
of the Year

"In The Name Of Love" (1984)
(Ralph MacDonald With Bill Withers)
#6 Billboard Adult Contemporary chart

"Lean on Me" (1987)
(Artist: Club Nouveau)
#1 Billboard Hot 100
#2 Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks
GRAMMY AWARD – Best R&B Song
of the Year

"Just the Two of Us" (1998)
(Artist: Will Smith)
#6 Billboard Top 40 Mainstream
#1 Billboard Hot Rap Singles
#6 Billboard Hot 100 Airplay

I imagine you never thought you'd return to Beckley that way.
I never expected any attention from there, because I didn't get any while I was living there. But I did think about achieving something when I lived in Beckley. And after I was in the Navy for nine years, I thought there was a chance that I might be able to do something if I ever got an opportunity and got my life together.

You mean a career in music?
It was always somewhere in the back of my mind. My mother used to tell me that I probably could do it, but mothers think you can do anything. I really started to pursue it, in my head, after I got out of the Navy. I was a milkman, and I didn't like that. Then I went to work at IBM, which was no fun, not after being an aircraft mechanic in the Navy. So, I left there and went to Ford. By that time, I had already decided that I was either going to pursue music or go to inhalation therapy school (Asthma-related therapy). That's a couple of choices for you. And then I just started chasing this music thing.

When I started out, I just wanted to sing some songs. I tried to find some songs and all the ones that I had access to that somebody else had written were kind of cliché. Probably the easiest way to get some songs to sing, I thought, is to write some. I backed into the songwriting, because I wanted to sing and I didn't like what I had access to.

Did you knock around with these songs for a while or did you find somebody who was willing to listen to you?
I sort of approached it like a business. I would save money and make demos. And then I would pass them around. One of the people I knew was Forrest Hamilton, whose father was Chico Hamilton, the drummer. Forrest put me in touch with the music attorney, Martin Cohen. Martin took me up to see Clarence Avant at Sussex Records. The label was about a year old and had a secretary and an owner. Clarence asked me if I had enough songs to make an album. I told him, "Yeah," which I didn't, but then, I figured there was motivation to go home and write something. In a few months, he called me up there and introduced me to Booker T. Jones. Booker T. kind of shepherded me into that first album.

What was that first recording session like?
Booker had the MGs as the primary players, and then Stephen Stills came in and played. And Graham Nash sat in front of me and he kept encouraging me, which was nice. So, here were all these guys that were well established, and I was still working at Weber Aircraft.

Did you feel like you had something special?
That's the sort of question that people answer different ways. But I believe there's only one answer to that question. If you don't think you've got something special, you don't bother. Even those people that get kicked off of American Idol that everybody laughs at, they think they've got something special. Everybody who tries to be an actor or a singer or an athlete, they all think they can play. Somebody'll let you know. Then there are people who slip through the cracks. I believe that I was like one of those 40 million people that watch football on Sunday. And maybe two or three thousand of those guys think, "I could play quarterback in that league, if they gave me a chance." Probably three of them could. I was probably one of those three guys, because I was well into my 30s, and it was an unlikely time to start pursuing something, because for all practical purposes, up until I got out, I considered myself a career Navy guy. So, you know, when people say they're surprised when they have some success, I don't think they're necessarily surprised. I think they're just euphoric. It's almost like which fat man gets through the funnel? That was pretty good. I just thought that up, too.

BILL WITHERS
TOP-10 ALBUMS

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Just As I Am (1971)
#5 Billboard Black Albums

Still Bill (1972)
#1 Billboard Black Albums
#4 Billboard Pop Albums

Bill Withers Live
at Carnegie Hall
(1973)
#6 Billboard Black Albums

+ Justments (1974)
#7 Billboard Black Albums

Making Music (1976)
#7 Billboard Black Albums

Your first hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," was massive.
That was the first song anybody knew me by, and it was actually the B-side of the single "Harlem" that was put out. The song you put on the B-side of the first single is the one you think you don't need later. The disk jockeys turned it over, so I owe them.

If you ask somebody what inspired them to write a song, after the fact, people go back and they make up these great stories about how they had this epiphany and all that stuff. I think basically we're all trying to rhyme something with something else and say something that just crosses our minds. So, I think the greatest stories about songwriting are made up after the songs are written.

Your first popularity came at a time where you were accepted in a lot of musical categories. I'm remembering FM rock stations in the early 70s when the same station would program the Rolling Stones, Don McLean, Led Zeppelin, Sly & the Family Stone and your music. That stopped happening after a while, but your music certainly was popular across racial lines.
Yeah, I had a pretty good demographic. You know, a couple years ago I had fun with demographics. Ralph McDonald (who co-wrote "Just the Two of Us"), plays in Jimmy Buffett's band. Ralph told him, "Bill Withers has got a country song." Jimmy asked to hear it and liked it. We recorded it together and it was on License to Chill, which turned out to be Buffett's first album to top both the Pop and Country charts. And I've wandered, now, all the way over to country.

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Of all your songs, "Lean on Me" has meant so much to so many people. Can you speak of the genesis of that song?
I think the time when we live is like this big data bank and everything that happens to us, or everything that we know happened to somebody else, goes into this bank. So all my cumulative experiences, whether I clearly remember them at the time I'm writing or not, go into the making of a song.

The sudden success must have been quite a change.
The biggest change for me was social adjustment from being this military/ industrial kind of guy moving into this entertainment music stuff in your 30s. I still haven't figured it out. In fact, I rubbed up against it a little bit and then withdrew back to my Black & Decker tools and stuff. So, I'm in the house a lot.

Of course, having the success with "Ain't No Sunshine" put you out there, as you say, in an unfamiliar situation. It must have been fun, though, to be touring and going to new places.
It was absolutely fun. And I wish I had figured out sooner that it was maybe more fun than I was built to have. The change in people's perception of you – you go from not being able to get a date to having movie stars come down and try to seduce you. You want to believe that, okay, now the people around you finally get it. But the truth of it is, you're that same guy. So, if there's anything that I would do differently, is I would do more music, but leave this show business alone, because I'm not built for it.

I think the people with the most longevity are the people who manage this whole thing socially. But it's how you're built – it's like I'm probably this mechanic that had a couple of songs laying around in him.

I know people who have never done anything else but music. They started practicing in their basement or their garage when they were six years old and they've never put it down. And I wish that I was like that. In fact after my first record, I got two notifications in one day. One was that I was called back to my job up in Burbank at Weber Aircraft, and the other one was to go on The Johnny Carson Show. That was a choice I had to make, and I actually had to think about it. I felt like maybe – wait a minute, you know – is there something wrong with me or what? But, we are the way we are.

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"Probably the easiest way to get some songs to sing, I thought, is to write some."

You did pretty well being Bill Withers. And you didn't let it go to your head.
Yeah, I'm okay being me. If you locked me in a room and made me tell the whole truth, I'd probably be pleased because it's been interesting. Once in a while I like to lift my nose a few degrees and do the old snob thing. But then I can't do that too long because my neck hurts and I need to go sit down.

— Jim Steinblatt


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