Bill Withers: the brilliant folk-soul star who said it all with time to spare

<span>Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns

Plenty of rock and pop artists have unexpectedly announced their retirement, but hardly any of them have stuck to the decision. Something invariably draws them back to performing and recording: financial necessity, the enjoyment of performing, the lure of the applause that accompanies it. But when Bill Withers retired from music in the mid-80s, tired of touring and of his strained relationship with his record company (he later claimed the final straw was seeing them devote more energy to a novelty album by The A-Team star Mr T than his work) he really meant it.

A full 35 years passed between the release of his final album and his death, and nothing could entice him back to the studio or the stage – save for a brief appearance on a 2004 album by, of all people, easy-going “gulf-and-western” singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. Other than that, the answer was always no, regardless of the fact that his music remained popular to the point of inescapability.

Everyman image ... Bill Withers.
Everyman image ... Bill Withers. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

The changing tides of fashion never did anything to dent the appeal of Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean On Me, Lovely Day and Just the Two of Us, songs that had assumed modern standard status long before he brought his recording career to an end. One young musician after another hailed him as an influence, and his musical DNA is in everything from Blackstreet’s No Diggity, which sampled his 1971 single Grandma’s Hands, to the folk-soul sound of Michael Kiwanuka. A 2015 Carnegie Hall tribute concert that lovingly re-created the 1973 live album he recorded at the same venue featured artists ranging from the obviously indebted to the surprising – D’Angelo and Aloe Blacc alongside Ed Sheeran – but it couldn’t draw Withers himself into performing.

He seemed suspicious of the music industry from the start. He stuck with his day job making aeroplane toilets until he was laid off

In truth, he seemed suspicious of the music industry from the start. Anyone else who’d come up with a song as utterly indelible as Ain’t No Sunshine – pitched perfectly between soul music and the burgeoning early-70s trend for acoustic singer-songwriters – and whose debut album could draw in artists of a calibre of Booker T and Stephen Stills, all eager to collaborate, might be inclined to believe they’d made it. Withers cautiously stuck with his day job making seats for aeroplane toilets until he was laid off. On the cover of the appropriately titled Just As I Am, he’s outside the factory, holding his packed lunch.

The everyman image suited its contents. The songwriting was uniformly brilliant, but the arrangements were understated. Ain’t No Sunshine was essentially unfinished: the repetitions of “I know” were there to cover for an unwritten extra verse, and became the most famous placeholder vocal in pop history. Critics occasionally took the unassuming accessibility of his music for softness – easy-listening homilies for an upwardly mobile black audience – but they clearly weren’t listening to his lyrics. They weren’t all gentle homespun wisdom and yearning love songs: Better Off Dead depicted an alcoholic spiralling towards suicide; I Can’t Write Left-Handed dealt with a Vietnam veteran attempting to come to terms with what would now be termed “life-changing injuries”; Who Is He (And What Is He to You)? prickled with paranoia and suspicion.

Moreover, there was a vast range and depth to his sound behind the easy-going façade: Withers could do funk, he could do gospel and he could do blues, all with apparent ease. He could also do disco, commonly held to be the undoing of a whole school of earnest black artists of the early 70s. You Got the Stuff is an untrammelled delight, shifting from a primitive beatbox rhythm not too dissimilar to George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby to a rather tougher, more lubricious brand of dancefloor funk than you might expect from the man on the cover of its album, 1978’s ’Bout Love, resplendent in sensible jersey and slacks.

Similarly, there’s a school of thought that says his later albums drowned him in late-70s studio slickness, but if 1975’s Making Music or the following year’s Naked and Warm lost some of the organic feel of his debut and its equally lauded successor Still Bill, they never sounded syrupy.

Listen to Don’t You Want To Stay? from the former. It’s ostensibly a love song, its protagonist setting out his desire for settled domesticity to a prospective partner, and it’s as lushly orchestrated as a Philly soul or Barry White ballad. But there’s something brooding and troubled about the melody, and about the way the string arrangement hovers around it like a dark cloud. When he sings: “Oh, that’s what the future holds with me,” it’s unclear whether he views it as blessing or curse.

Bill Withers being inducted to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Bill Withers being inducted to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Photograph: Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

Or listen to City of Angels from Naked and Warm. A hymn to the sunkissed land of opportunity that is LA, it suddenly loses its rhythm midway through, leaving behind five more minutes of beatless drift that are both gorgeous and unsettling. “I heard you got a Disneyland not too far away,” sings Withers, “and when it rains I understand the skies are clear all day.” There’s a yearning tone to his voice that suggests he knows paradise isn’t going to materialise, that life is going to be hard regardless of the climate. It says something that an oeuvre as concise as his contains hidden gems: his biggest hits got so big that they couldn’t help but cast a shadow over everything else.

He was still writing fantastic songs on his final album, Watching You Watching Me. This time you could claim that the production didn’t suit him – it is very mid-80s, everything buffed until you can see your reflection in it – but that doesn’t negate the melodic charm of the title track, or Oh Yeah!

But by then, Withers was understandably worn down. It seems incredible in retrospect, but his record company rejected so many of his songs as unsuitable or of insufficient quality that seven years separated Watching You Watching Me from its predecessor. He made do in the interim with guest appearances on others’ albums, and if you’re in the market for another overlooked Withers classic, you could do worse than his collaboration with the Crusaders, Soul Shadows. You couldn’t really blame him for walking away – especially given that his greatest hits were the kind of greatest hits that meant their author would never have to work again.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a crying shame he never did. But Bill Withers seemed perfectly content in retirement – unless you ventured on to the subject of the music business. He brought the house down with a series of one-liners when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but that didn’t preclude him letting them have it with both barrels: A&R, he suggested, stood for “antagonistic and redundant”. If record companies called, trying to entice him back, he was apparently fond of telling them he was too busy watching television, a man who knew he’d more than earned the right to tell the music business, with a genial smile, to go and screw itself.