I wouldn't know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart
April 15, 2015 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away

On the mantel in a hallway, there is a Best R&B Song award, for 1980's "Just the Two of Us," from the last time he attended the show, three decades ago; it sits next to two other Grammys, for 1971's "Ain't No Sunshine" and 1972's "Lean on Me." A few years after "Two of Us," Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back.

Bill Withers - In Concert at the BBC, 1973 (30 mins)
posted by item (20 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I was thinking about Bill Withers the other day, wondering what had happened to him. I am glad to hear that he's well and if Questlove wants to set up a crowdfunding site to get Bill back in the studio, I'll be happy to donate.
posted by tommasz at 12:22 PM on April 15, 2015

"I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson ... It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It's not poetry. This just isn't my time."

The "fat, ugly broad" part makes me cringe but the rest of that quote is A+++.

If you haven't checked out the 2011 documentary on Withers,"Still Bill"... it is very good.
posted by raihan_ at 12:30 PM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really enjoyed the documentary Still Bill even though, as documentary subjects go, Bill Withers is as far from someone like a Ginger Baker (a more typical doc subject), and on paper Bill is pretty boring without a lot of drama for a narrative arc.

It was basically a slice of life documentary about a satisfied late middle aged man who lived life on his terms, valued his life friends and family, with a slight niggle of "I still got it" to him while being completely at peace with walking away and not tolerating bullshit.

Nothing much happens. Still somehow very watchable and satisfying. And the tunes are top drawer.
posted by C.A.S. at 12:54 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nothing much happens.
Oh, but what he could do with nothing...

A snarky "adult contemporary" disc jockey gained my permanent disdain when he did a gag which used "Ain't No Sunshine's" "I know I know I know.." bridge as a punchline. By editing it to start near the end of the first "I know", he was able to come up with "I'm not a plain old drunk, I'm a... 'wino wino wino wino wino...'" And I still keep remembering it when I hear that song, kind of like a malignant anti-earworm.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:10 PM on April 15, 2015

A good friend turned me onto Bill Withers with a single song, Better Off Dead. It's a groovy, bouncing soul song about... suicide. The last track on the album, Just As I Am, the song ends with the sound of the narrator blowing his own goddamned head off. That's a ballsy way to end a pop record.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:37 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

How do you a duck sing?

Stick it in a microwave on high until it's Bill Withers.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 1:46 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Use Me is one of my all time favorite songs. One of the best slow grooves ever.
posted by doctor_negative at 1:48 PM on April 15, 2015 [11 favorites]

That's a ballsy way to end a pop record.

Also ballsy: It's Lean On Me's B-side. I listened the hell out of that 45.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 1:48 PM on April 15, 2015

I adore Bill Withers. I sing ruin Ain't No Sunshine almost every time I do karaoke, because it is one of the best god damn songs every recorded.
posted by shmegegge at 1:49 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

He's the best and this article makes me adore him all the more. What a normal, regular human. Thanks for linking!
posted by latkes at 2:31 PM on April 15, 2015

Bill's Lovely Day is chronically undersampled. What's wrong with the DJs of today?

I love that song!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:44 PM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

As we've recently discovered – or known for a long time – Rolling Stone is a pretty atrocious source of journalism, and at this point can even be counted as a source of evil in the world. I think linking directly to them is probably a bad idea, and clicking on a link to their site only supports them.

At the very least, it's a good idea to use a do-not-link-ified version of the URL, so that Rolling Stone doesn't get a search engine boost. Here is the link; it will redirect to the Rolling Stone article on Bill Withers. If you share this on Facebook or Twitter, it's probably a good idea to share it with the do-not-link-ified version.
posted by koeselitz at 3:05 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

a malignant anti-earworm

Well thanks for giving it to me!
posted by Bonzai at 3:49 PM on April 15, 2015

I'm looking forward to listening to Death, Sex and Money's interview with Bill Withers:
Maybe it’s not manly to say, “I’m scared.” But for Bill Withers, being a man isn’t about ignoring fear. It's about getting things done in spite of it, and knowing when to ask for help. Before he wrote some of the most memorable hits of the 70s and 80s—songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lean on Me”—Withers was a stuttering boy in a poor mining town.

I spoke with Withers, a fellow West Virginian, about leaving his small town, caring for his dying father, and finding the courage to make something of himself.
posted by heatherann at 4:00 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you dig Withers as a songwriter, check out the Jackson 5 cover of 'Ain't No Sunshine.' Young Mike sells the hell out of that shit.
posted by box at 6:20 PM on April 15, 2015

"Ain't No Sunshine" is a song that haunts me in all my travels. No lie, I have traveled throughout the world and ALWAYS there will be some version of "Ain't No Sunshine" playing or being played. While walking down various streets the notes can be heard sung by street performers, ringtones, dance covers and hummed by passersby. It is a sparse song with intense feelings that translates well. Now, why "Kung-Fu Fighting" also was haunting me for awhile there is a mystery.
posted by jadepearl at 6:39 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

There was often something very childlike about his lyrics that I've always appreciated. "When I'm kissing my love I close my eyes and see a pretty city with a million flowerbeds." That's something a kid might say. It's a perfectly unselfconscious expression of love that is unconcerned with looking cool.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:29 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I could listen to "Ain't No Sunshine" all day. But my favorite Withers song is the haunting and nostaligic "Soul Shadows."

San Francisco morning coming clear and cold
Don't know if I'm waking or I'm dreaming
Riding with Fats Waller on the Super Chief
He said, musics real, the rest is seeming

Oh, deep pain
Feeling that won't go away
There's the sound of his soul in the air
I can hear it up there
And I know he left those soul shadows
On my mind, on my mind, on my mind

Soul shadows on my mind
On my mind, on my mind
Soul shadows on my mind
On my mind, on my mind

Standing by the window as a fog rolls in
I swear I can hear a far-off music
Jelly Roll is playing down in Storyville
And Satchmo is wailing in Chicago
You ought to heard 'em play
Feelings that won't go away
Left the sound of their souls in the air
I hear out there and I know

They left them soul shadows all on my mind
On my mind, on my mind
They left them soul shadows all on my mind
On my mind, on my mind
They left soul shadows on my mind
They left them shadows on my mind
They left them soul shadows on my mind

posted by mono blanco at 7:42 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read something about "Use Me" which was fantastic. It's probably apocryphal but I want to believe...

Bill was out of the studio, and the rhythm section was just jamming on the two chords of the song for a full 15 minutes — the standard length of a 2" tape reel at high speed.

Sometime after, Bill came in and heard the groove, and recorded his vocals and guitar over the existing track, but they started recording him 2/3 of the way into the tape, so the band had already been in that groove for 10 minutes before the song even starts.

That's why it's so deep.
posted by dickyvibe at 9:30 PM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

If you're quite familiar with the lyrics of "Use Me," Wikipedia's content section for the song is very funny.
posted by heatvision at 3:42 AM on April 16, 2015

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