Bill Withers death: ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Lean on Me’ singer dies aged 81

Bill Withers, who rose to fame with a string of soulful hits during the 1970s: Rex
Bill Withers, who rose to fame with a string of soulful hits during the 1970s: Rex

US singer-songwriter Bill Withers, whose hits included “Lean On Me”, “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”, has died aged 81.

The Grammy Award-winning artist, who released a number of soulful songs during the Seventies that went on to become classics, died from heart complications.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” a statement issued by Withers’ family said.

“A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.

“As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”

The youngest of six children, Withers was born in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was three years old, he was raised by his mother’s family in Beckley.

Withers, who overcame a childhood stutter, joined the Navy when he was 17 and spent nine years as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. Upon moving to Los Angeles, he bought a guitar at a pawn shop from money earnt working at a factory that produced aircraft parts, and recorded demos in the hope of landing a record deal.

His debut album, Just As I Am, was produced by the legendary Booker T Jones, who also played keyboard and guitar on the record. Released by Sussex Records, the album cover Withers smiling as he leans against a wall, holding his lunch pail.

Withers’ relationship with Sussex Records ended badly – in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015 he claimed the label hadn’t been paying him.

“They looked at me and said, ‘So, I owe you some money, so what?’” he recalled. “I was socialised in the military. When some guy is smushing my face down, it doesn’t go down well.”

He later signed to Columbia Records, with his second wife, Marcia Johnson, eventually becoming his manager. From his new record label, Withers released further hit records including “Lovely Day”, which includes one of the longest sustained notes ever recorded (18 seconds).

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder. At the ceremony, Withers thanked his wife as well as the R&B pioneers who helped his career like Ray Jackson, Al Bell and Booker T Jones. He also took a swipe at the industry people who had become a source of his ire, joking that A&R stood for “antagonistic and redundant”.

Withers’ song “Lean On Me” had become a source of comfort for many during the coronavirus pandemic, with care workers, nurses, doctors and fellow artists sharing their own renditions online.

The song was also performed at the presidential inaugurations of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

His track ”Grandma’s Hands”, which was dedicated to the grandmother who helped raise him, is famously sampled on the Blackstreet song “No Diggity”.

Music and band leader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015: “He’s the last African-American Everyman. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with,” Withers once said. “I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”

Withers is survived by his wife Marcia and their two children, Todd and Kori.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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