Legendary ASCAP Soul Singer-Songwriter Bill Withers Has Died

By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief  •  April 3, 2020

Bill Withers, the legendary and Grammy Award-winning soul singer-songwriter behind the timeless hits “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Use Me,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “Lean on Me,” has died at the age of 81.

“We lost a giant of songwriting today,” said ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams. “Bill Withers’ songs are among the most treasured and profound in the American songbook - universal in the way they touch people all over the world, transcending genre and generation. He was a beautiful man with a stunning sense of humor and a gift for truth. I will miss him personally as will the entire ASCAP family. We love you, Bill. Our hearts go out to his family.”

Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1938, Withers served in the Navy and worked as an aircraft mechanic before his professional music career began in earnest when he was in his early thirties. Starting with the album “Just As I Am” in 1971, Withers combined gritty blues, R&B, soul and the honest singer-songwriter confessional style that defined the 1970s. From the danceable “Use Me” to the mellow gold of “Just the Two of Us” to the poetic and resonant “Grandma’s Hands,” he could be strong and he could be vulnerable. His hits continued with songs that have now become anthems, including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day” and the most notably “Lean on Me,” which has recently become associated with the Coronavirus pandemic, with many people posting their own versions to support health workers and other essential services.

Although he retired from recording and performing in 1985, he continued to be recognized and honored for his profound influence on music and music creators across many generations. He entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. And he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder.

He appeared as a keynote speaker at the ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO twice. First in 2010 in conversation with Justin Timberlake and again in 2015 when he was interviewed by Aloe Blacc. With each appearance, his irreverent and humorous take on the music industry was a huge hit (his definition of A&R was “antagonistic and redundant”) but he also provided countless pearls of wisdom that younger music creators ate up. In 2014, Withers also participated I ASCAP’s centennial celebration by appearing in a video, Why We Create Music, on the value of music and collaborating on its score

His musical influence is evident in the great use of his valuable songwriting catalog, which turns up frequently in films and TV commercials. In addition, his songs have been sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Blackstreet, Eminem and others.

Still Bill, an acclaimed documentary on Withers that premiered at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In an interview with the New York Times from several years ago, Withers offered a typically insightful perspective on our culture, one that seems remarkably prophetic today: “I have seen America and all the weird phases it has been through, all the cruelty and all the kindness,” Mr. Withers said. “I was born on the Fourth of July. That makes me very American. But I have not been imprisoned by any culture. What’s that Joni Mitchell said, ‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now’? I’ve looked at America from both sides — the ugly and the whatever. That’s why I say it’s this miracle of the United States.”