A coal miner’s son from West Virginia, Bill Withers had dreams that were bigger than his hometown of Slab Fork. In 1971, Withers began writing and recording soul, R&B, and blues songs that became big hits, including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lean On Me.” While he’s one of the most recognizable voices in R&B, Withers didn’t stay in the spotlight for long. Even his fans don’t know much about the talented musician’s life. In 1985, after a fall-out with Columbia Records, Withers stopped recording and performing, retiring to a quiet life as a family man, working a normal job in Los Angeles. Take a closer look at the life of Bill Withers.
Born In A Coal Mining Town, The Youngest Of Six Children
Withers was born in 1938 and raised in poor, rural towns around West Virginia where his father worked as a coal miner. He was the youngest of six children and his childhood wasn’t easy. His father passed away when he was just 13-years old.
He 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.”
Wither Enlisted in the United States Navy At 17-Years-Old
There wasn’t any opportunity for Withers in the rural area of West Virginia that he grew up in. In 1956, Withers graduated from high school and immediately enlisted in the United States Navy as an escape of the small coal mining town.
The US Navy was desegregated just eight years before Withers enlisted as a teenager. However even at his young age, Withers anticipated that he’d have to perform above and beyond the majority of his peers to prove his worth. Upon enlisting, he chose aircraft mechanic school as his military path.
The Reason Withers Believed He Had A Stutter
From the time he was a child and throughout his military career, Withers spoke with a stutter. Eager to rid of the characteristic that he believed was holding him back in life, introspection led him to believe that his stutter was caused by his low self-esteem.
He told Rolling Stone, “I realized it wasn’t physical. I figured out that my stutter– and this isn’t the case for everyone– was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did for myself.”
He Coached Himself Out Of His Stutter Using His Own Methods
It’s not uncommon for people to have a speech impediment beginning at a young age. Kids are often guided towards a speech therapist to overcome it. Remarkably, Withers was able to coach himself out of the stutter on his own.
“I started doing things like imagining everybody naked– all kinds of tricks I used on myself,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. This was while he was in the Navy, and by the time he got out, his stutter was gone.
He Took A Job At An Aircraft Parts Factory And Saved His Money
Throughout his life, Withers was motivated to keep pushing forward and create a better, more fulfilling life for himself. After getting out of the Navy, and a short stint as a milkman, Withers knew he was ready for something bigger.
He took a job at an aircraft parts factory in California where he was still vastly overqualified but paid the bills with a little left over to put into savings. Withers was wise with his money and managed it well from a young age.
He Bought A Guitar And A Piano And Taught Himself To Play
In his twenties, while still working in a factory, Withers began songwriting. He quickly proved that he had a talent for creating uplifting songs like “Lean On Me” and songs that pulled heartstrings, including “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
Using some of the money he had saved up, Withers bought a guitar from a pawn shop and taught himself how to play. He would end up buying a piano and taught himself how to play that, too.
Although He Was A Songwriter, He Didn’t Expect To Sing
Withers had been writing his own songs and playing them on the guitar, but he never planned on singing along with them in the recording studio. It wasn’t until the day of recording that Withers knew he’d be the one singing on the track.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Keyboardist Booker T. Jones recalls Withers entering the recording studio with a hired band waiting for him. Withers asked Jones, “Booker, who is going to sing these songs?” and Jones recalls, “I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”
His Career Took Off In 1971
Within a short period of time in the 70s and 80s, Withers wrote several hit songs that have stood the test of time. His first album Just as I am was released in 1971 with hit singles “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands.”
The same year, Withers appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote the album. Soon after, “Ain’t No Sunshine” reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts.
He Didn’t Have A Manager
Withers tried out having a manager for a few months when he first started his music career but it didn’t work for him. He told Rolling Stone, “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”
He took control of everything, making sure he was authentically portrayed, including his album covers. Not having to pay a manager also saved him money but Withers didn’t think he made as much money as he deserved.
He Didn’t Get Along With Columbia Records
What put the nail in the coffin of Withers’ career was when he switched record labels, from Sussex to Columbia records. Withers believed that he was treated fairly at Columbia, and didn’t get along with the executives.
By 1985, Withers felt that he was losing his creative control, and didn’t want to follow the label’s suggestions of covering Elvis Presley songs and constantly being on the road. That was the last year Withers recorded music or performed. He never released any new music or performed again.
People Recognized His Name, But Not His Face
Unlike some other R&B and soul artists from the 1970s like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, Withers welcomed the dimming spotlight. His name was still famous, but his face wasn’t. And just as well, that was alright with him. That is, unless he wanted to get a little recognition after church.
He recalls, “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 below, 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!'”
He Had Two Marriages And Two Kids
Withers had two marriages. His first marriage to actress and social activist Denise Nicholas was not a healthy one. The couple often fought, and the marriage only lasted from 1973-1974.
In 1976, Withers married Marcia Johnson and had two children. His daughter Kori is a musical artist herself and performs in Los Angeles. She pays homage to her father by covering his hit songs. Withers was also close to his son Todd, who helps manage the family’s publishing companies based in Beverly Hills, alongside his mom.
He Sold His Hollywood Hills Home For $3.2 Million
In May 2019, Withers and his wife Marcia listed their Hollywood Hills home for sale. Originally purchased for $700,000 in 1998, the couple listed the 5,000 square foot home for $3.25 million and sold it for $2.83 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Three stories high, the home has five bedrooms, an elevator, and a recording studio, which makes you wonder if he recorded more music privately. The incredible view of Los Angeles out to the Pacific Ocean is what really makes the property special.
Withers Has Three Grammy Awards
Withers recorded his first song in 1970 and by 1971 was nominated for three Grammy Awards– Best Rhythm & Blues Song, Best New Artist, and Best Pop Vocal Performance Male. He took home Best Rhythm & Blues Song for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” solidifying himself as a successful artist just one year after quitting his job at the aircraft parts factory.
In 1981 he was nominated for four more Grammy Awards, winning Best Rhythm & Blues Song for “Just the Two of Us.” His third and last Grammy Award was again in the same category in 1987 for “Lean on Me.”
As He Drifted Away From The Spotlight, He Believed People Thought He Was Dead
Although he preferred to keep his life private later on, Withers had a great sense of humor and had strong relationships with close friends. In a conversation with Rolling Stone, Withers said that he was aware of some rumors that spread about him being dead, since he’s stayed out of the public eye for so long.
He said, “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself. A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or no. I said to him, ‘Let me check'”.
His Iconic Career Didn’t Last As Long As It Could Have
In the mid-1980s, Withers began growing tired of the music business. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and two kids, and less time traveling on the road.
In a 2015 interview with Garden & Gun, Withers said, “I had a pretty good run. And by then I had family and some kids, so I went about trying to do a good job at that. Without even thinking about it, I just went ahead with my life.”
His Musical Inspiration Began In The Coal Mining Town He Grew Up In
Withers told Rolling Stone, “We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhood. I heard guys playing country music, and in church, I heard gospel. There was music everywhere.”
It Wasn’t Easy Growing Up In America During That Time
Growing up black in rural America wasn’t easy for Withers. He was a teenager when Emmett Till, also a black teenager, was beaten to death in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Withers was acutely aware of how people perceived him.
He was stationed in California when he got out of the Navy and decided to take up residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he proclaimed he was “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California.”
He Was Inducted Into The Roll and Roll Hall of Fame
In 2015, three decades after his last performance as an artist, Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder. Of his induction, Withers said, “I see it as an award of attrition. What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in.”
Withers was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 but made very few appearances after retiring in 1985.
Why He Decided to Retire in 1985
In an interview, he told Rolling Stone, “I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson. It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that would sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”
Withers wanted total creative control or nothing at all. After ten years with Columbia Records, Withers decided that his time was better spent making sure he was a good father, husband and provided for his family. Along with his wife Marcia, who has an MBA, Withers opened a publishing company based in Beverly Hills.