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Bill Withers Was an Everyman With Superheroic Empathy

The “Ain’t No Sunshine” singer, who died this week at age 81, never lost his lunch-pail roots even as he crafted some of the richest and most deeply felt soul songs in history

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You can see Bill Withers’s lunch pail right there on the cover of his 1971 debut album, Just As I Am, in a candid portrait—the blue jeans, the brick wall, the affable smile—taken on his lunch break at the airplane-parts factory. “My co-workers were making fun of me,” he recalled to Rolling Stone in 2015, four decades or so later, shortly before his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “They thought it was a joke.”

Superimposed on that brick wall was much of the album’s track list: “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “Harlem.” “Grandma’s Hands.” “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” Hilarious. Career-making, genre-defining. Genres, really. All you need to know about soul, or R&B, or mellow singer-songwriter gold, or the ’70s, or California, or basic human empathy, you can learn from the way he sings the phrase I know 26 straight times (there’s a Reddit thread) in the middle of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a separate galaxy of emotion born with each repetition. Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, and already in his 30s (a nine-year stint in the Navy as an aircraft mechanic, largely spent installing toilets, was already behind him), he was a soul colossus from that moment forward, defined as much by his ease as his effort, and as much by his absence as his unfathomably warming presence.

Bill Withers died this week, at 81, from heart complications, his family announced Friday. As pop singers of any persuasion or temperament go, pretty much nobody did it better, and absolutely nobody did it more casually, or imbued the word workmanlike with more otherworldly grace.

In 1972, to clarify that fame had not necessarily spurred him to toss out his lunch pail just yet, he called his next album Still Bill, and that’s the one with “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?” and “Use Me” and “Lean on Me” back-to-back-to-back. You don’t talk or write or pontificate about songs like this. It’s a matter of respect. What do you need me to tell you about “Lean on Me”? What is there to say about his calmly shattering Vietnam War protest song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” best captured on 1973’s Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, that’s not communicated the first time he bellows the title, and makes you imagine, through the ferocity and the resignation of his voice alone, how you’d feel if you gave your right arm for your country? All the pain and anger from the dissolution of his first marriage is right there on 1974’s alarmingly funky ’Justments. This is a four-year span, so far. A lifetime. A canon.

But it’s all not, very pointedly, the work of some unknowable superhero. “He’s the last African-American Everyman,” Questlove raved to Rolling Stone in 2015, lamenting the gala comeback album Withers would never let him produce. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

And as with Springsteen, record-industry bullshit is a major part of the equation, along with bullshit of every other conceivable kind. (“I’m a 77-year-old black guy,” Withers told The New York Times’ Ben Sisario in 2015, “and I had 77-year-old-black-guy experiences.”) From 1975 on, he still had hits, and major ones, including the low-key joyous “Lovely Day” from 1977’s Menagerie and 1980’s sultry Grover Washington Jr. collab “Just the Two of Us.” But by then he’d changed record companies, and suffered through a brief stint with a manager whose tutelage he’d later liken to a “gasoline enema,” and indignantly waved off some doofy executive’s suggestion that he cover Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto.”

No way. “This business came to me in my thirties,” Withers told Rolling Stone. “I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”

That 2015 article, written by Andy Greene, is amazing: It was published 30 years after Withers all but vanished after releasing 1985’s only slightly over-slick Watching You Watching Me, and the headline is “The Soul Man Who Walked Away,” and the funniest line is, “‘I really have no idea what he does all day,’ says his wife, Marcia. ‘But he does a lot on his iPad.’” The guy could be ornery for sure: “This conversation sucks,” Withers once told New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, mid-interview, after “Just the Two of Us” had come up. “I’m going to take a shower.” But the orneriness was inherent to the charm, and to the everyman greatness.

I can’t recommend Bill Withers’s 2015 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech—in which he shouts out Joan Jett, Beck, and Miley Cyrus—highly enough. Top five lines:

5. [Recalling the Just As I Am sessions, and lamenting that he now has to describe many of its key players as “late.”] “Booker T. [Jones] gently shepherded me through that first album, using greats like Al Jackson—late. Duck Dunn—late. Stephen Stills—nah, he’s still around.”

4. “Bein’ an old guy, sometimes you guys get too loud: ‘I gotta go to the bathroom.’”

3. “This has got to be the largest AA meeting in the Western Hemisphere.”

2. “I watch a lot of Judge Judy. I’m not out and about.”

1. “Bottom line is—check this out. Stevie Wonder knows my name, and the brother just put me in the Hall of Fame.”

As with all Rock Hall inductions, an all-star jam follows, but as with relatively few Rock Hall inductions, the inductee himself does very little singing or performing: Withers is instead content to lean in close as Wonder blows through “Ain’t No Sunshine,” or lurk behind John Legend for much of “Lean on Me.” There’s something a little Dave Chappelle–like about the way Withers disappeared in the mid-’80s and defiantly dodged all the usual nostalgia-tour shenanigans thereafter. “I probably have a couple of things laying around,” he teased NPR in 2015, referring to his home studio. “It’s like, just because your dog doesn’t bite the mailman doesn’t mean he ain’t still a dog, you know?”

But that Rock Hall–driven run of 2015 chatter was all he left us with, though even later in life Withers was still capable of popping up for just a second and delivering a concentrated burst of startling, superheroic humility. There is an outlandishly moving scene in the 2009 documentary Still Bill, directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, in which Withers, who stuttered as a child, visits a New York City theater group dedicated to kids who stutter, and opens himself up in a manner as pure and heartbreaking and heartening as any of his songs. “It’s almost like fingerprints,” he tells them. “We each have our own style of stuttering, which makes us unique. I really identified with people who stop at their name.”

He mentions a party he went to recently, full of famous people he knew and who knew him, though his own struggles still resurfaced:

And I went over to this one guy, and man, I got stuck. And it brought back memories, ’cause there was a woman with him, and she started to laugh. It was fear. Fear of the perception of the listener. This fear that makes us apprehensive right at the point of trying to speak. It stops us. One of the ways to deal with the fear is to approach people with a prepared forgiveness. We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter.

Withers is wiping away tears by this point. “Having had people not understand me a lot maybe helped me wait a little beat, to where I can extend something that hasn’t been given to me,” he concludes. “And I think that makes you a much bigger person.” All I can tell you about “Lean on Me” or “Stories” or “Harlem” or “Make Love to Your Mind” or all the rest is that they approach you with a prepared forgiveness. They meet you at the level of your own unworthiness. And then they elevate you far above it.