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Bill Withers, soul icon behind 'Lean On Me,' dies at 81

Andrew Marszal, with Maggy Donaldson in New York

Agence France-Presse

Los Angeles, United States  /  Sat, April 4, 2020  /  10:01 am
Bill Withers, soul icon behind 'Lean On Me,' dies at 81

Bill Withers speaks onstage at 'Reel To Reel: Chuck Berry: Brown Eyed Handsome Man' at the GRAMMY Museum on February 24, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (AFP/Rebecca Sapp)

Bill Withers, the legendary performer who delivered timeless hits like "Ain't No Sunshine" with silky yet funkified vocals and came to define 1970s soul, has died. He was 81 years old.

The Grammy-winning artist behind the beloved "Lean on Me" succumbed to heart complications, according to his family, which said it was "devastated" over the loss.

"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," they said.

"In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones."

The artist's recording career lasted just 14 years -- he released his final album in 1985 -- but his hits that melded gritty southern blues with smooth R&B have endured for decades as global classics, including "Lovely Day" and "Just the Two of Us".

The youngest of six, Withers was born on July 4, 1938 during the final years of the Great Depression in Slab Fork, West Virginia, and grew up in a segregated coal mining region.

As a child he struggled with a stutter, and in his teenage years enlisted in the US Navy and then worked as an aircraft mechanic. 

It wasn't until his mid-30s that Withers began recording music.

"I can't play the guitar or the piano, but I made a career out of writing songs on guitars and piano," the artist told The New York Times in 2015. 

"I never learned music. I just did it."

Withers moved to Los Angeles in 1967 and self-financed demos, releasing in 1971 his debut studio album Just As I Am, which was produced by the influential Booker T. Jones.

Its single "Ain't No Sunshine" is now named among Rolling Stone's greatest songs of all time.

But the track that became an indelible smash came out on the B-side -- the artists and repertoire (A&R) promoters at Withers' label didn't think much of it.

"The disc jockeys, god bless 'em, turned it over, and that's how I got started," Withers told NPR in 2015. 

"I call A&R 'antagonistic & redundant,' and that's why -- because they make those genius decisions like that."

Read also: Jazz great Ellis Marsalis dies aged 85 after virus 'complications'

'Our Everyman'

Rolling Stone dubbed Withers' second album Still Bill -- which included the now-standards "Lean on Me" and "Use Me" -- a "stone-cold masterpiece".

Withers based "Lean On Me" -- a wildly popular ode to friendship that soundtracked the presidential inaugurations of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton -- on his West Virginia childhood, inspired by selfless neighbors in cash-strapped times. 

An ardent crusader for creative freedom, his disdain for labels was no secret.

"Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema," he told Rolling Stone. "Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man."

He put out eight studio albums, and entered de-facto retirement in 1985 after releasing his final studio work, Watching You Watching Me.

But his legacy continued to grow well after he left the industry, with many artists including A-listers like Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney covering his songs.

Withers also found love from hip hop artists eager to let samples of his hits power their raps, including Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur and Blackstreet, who with Dr. Dre and Queen Pen revived "Grandma's Hands" for the 1990s hit "No Diggity".

"I feel very flattered that my songs have become part of the American landscape," the artist, who kept a low profile as he aged, told Billboard in 2005.

Withers entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and fellow soul icon Stevie Wonder inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

Tributes began pouring out to the late songwriter, whose death came amid stress over the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

"This hurts to hear," said Questlove, drummer for The Roots, on Instagram, hailing Withers as "one of the last celebrated blue collar musicians".

"He was our Springsteen...our Everyman."

The Recording Academy behind the Grammys dubbed Withers "remarkably impactful," as the Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson called him a "songwriter's songwriter" and John Legend tweeted that "life wouldn't be the same without him."

"Rest in power Bill Withers," tweeted R&B star Lenny Kravitz. "Your voice, songs, and total expression gave us love, hope, and strength."

"My soul always has & always will be full of your music... you carried us all to a better place."

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