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the elusive bill withers talks about the upcoming career “lean on him” tribute concert in an afropunk exclusive interview #soundcheck

September 7, 2015
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I was 17, driving home from school in my first car, flipping through the radio when I heard a simple acoustic guitar riff backed by soulful drums and majestic strings. “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I don’t know whether I’d heard the song before and just not paid attention, but at that point in my life, if it didn’t have some connection either to Dischord Records and Fugazi or Warp Records and Aphex Twin I didn’t really want much to do with it. But there was this song. Halfway through the first verse, I pulled over and grabbed a pad (did I mention it was the mid 90’s?). I jotted down lyrics frantically, in hopes I might find the song on the nascent internet if they didn’t say the name before they cut to commercial. Altavista and Lycos were the search engines of choice. Wikipedia didn’t exist. Napster was still sort of legal. At least, Metallica wasn’t squaring off with Chuck D in the court of public opinion over it yet. In a weird bit of digital-age nostalgia, despite having purchased that song many times over on both vinyl and CD, (and one time 8-track, despite not having an 8-track player) I still have that mp3 I downloaded when I got home; lossy, with those trademark Napster glitches, a reminder of that afternoon. Direct, poetic lyrics, and a simple but powerful melody. That afternoon began a lifelong love affair with the music of the great Bill Withers.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

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From 1971 to 1985, Bill Withers had a run of iconic hits that helped define the course of American popular music for the next 30 years. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” “Just The Two Of Us” have become classics of the American songbook, an indelible thread in the fabric of American music. Yet, after a 14 year run that any musician would envy, the man stepped away and never looked back. I spoke with Bill Withers in anticipation of his October 1st retrospective concert at Carnegie Hall. Helmed by artists like D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Aloe Blacc, and Keb’ Mo’, the concert will recreate Bill’s 1973 live album Live at Carnegie Hall.

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Eagerly, I ask if he’s planning on performing. “You got a hold of a lot of bad information, Nathan,” he tells me with a chuckle. “I appreciate your optimism.” Bill Withers of 2015 seems content with his lot; almost amused by his success. It’s easy to see why: here’s a man who had no intent of becoming a musician. A stutterer since childhood, and no formal training, Bill Withers spent his 20’s first as a Navy aircraft mechanic, then a milkman, before taking a job at an aircraft parts factory in California. He didn’t even record his first demo until he was in his late 20’s. The cover of 1971’s Just As I Am was famously shot during his lunch break at the factory; many of his coworkers thinking the photoshoot was a joke.

 

“I didn’t really step away from anything. I was just doing something different. I wasn’t socialized as a musician from birth. I started doing this in my thirties. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know how to live without doing it, you know?”

 

The story of why he stepped away has long been shrouded in controversy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bill recounts the racism of Columbia Records executives and the needling of Columbia A&R rep Mickey Eichner as prime motivating factors behind his retirement. Though Eichner has refuted that account. To me, he simply says “It was fun, but you know, when I had kids and stuff like that it just didn’t…well I don’t even remember, Nathan!”

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While many musicians spend the years after their biggest hits desperately trying to recreate the magic, Bill seems grateful for the time he spent in the limelight, but just as grateful to be out of it. When I ask if he ever wishes he could have the touring career of some of his contemporaries like the Rolling Stones, he responds unequivocally “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. When I look at that. I’m like, boy they are still jumping up and down. That doesn’t affect me, you know? They’re them and I’m me.” He’s happy to be off the constant grind, “I know a guy with a Jaguar, but I happen to like SUVs. People are different. Just because somebody else is doing something, doesn’t mean that I have to. And there’s like four of them, there’s only one of me.”

 

Despite his retirement from music, Whithers remains as passionate as ever about the art of music. “I think I called John Legend up and let him know I was proud of him for writing that song ‘all of me loves all of you.’ I love the poetry of music. So if I here some poetry that strikes me, I’ll either let him know or give him a silent applause. I never was a showy kind of guy. I never danced. So we have a tendency to pay attention to things that strike a fancy with us. And to me, I like the poetry of music. If you can read it off the page without the music, then I’m more likely to like it. I mean, it’s more likely to strike a chord with me. I like James Brown because of the energy of it. I like a lot of things. But if you’re asking about something I pay attention to or identify with, it would be the poetry of the song.”


It’s that love of the poetry of music that has made his songs immortal; covered by hundreds of artists, and sampled by hundreds more. (Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” which uses a sample of “Grandma’s Hands” was itself recently dubbed officially timeless by Spotify data scientist Matt Daniels. Though his songs have taken a life of their own, Whithers considers them to still be a major part of him. “Well once you do something, you always feel connected to it. Even if you’re on your ninth wife, you still feel a connection to the other 8. I don’t wanna separate myself from it. Because then I would have no credentials. So those are my credentials for the reason you’re talking to me. So I don’t feel any divorcement from it. That’s just not what I do right now. I mean, let’s face it, there are not a lot of people my age out there banging it out, you know?”

 

When I ask him how he thinks his music will be viewed in another 30 years, Bill Whithers is typically straightforward: “I already know what they’ll think of it, since it’s been 30 years since I did it. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think it’s pretty well established what people will think of it. Some people can use it and some people can’t. It is what it is by now. How many things you know that change 30 years into it? The next 30 will probably be like the last 30. If they don’t forget it.”

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On October 1st, Bill Withers may not be performing, but he’s excited to be in the audience, watching younger artists interpret his songs. “I’m going to watch some new people who are probably the age of my children do my songs, and I’m going to try to be gracious and not spill anything on myself at dinner.” Proceeds from the evening go to benefit The Stuttering Association for the Young, an organization near and dear to Whithers’ heart.

 

Before we close, Bill asks me one question. “Nathan, if you can figure out a way for me to change something in the middle of the stream, let me know. I want to know that.” If I ever figure that out, he’ll be the first to know. 

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