Photo: Public Domain / Columbia Records / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers crafted anthems from the most basic of topics: sunshine, pleasant days, friendship, grandmothers. His songs were as earnest as Sesame Street yet as emotionally volatile as Wall Street. They were also about loss, and the open-hearted desire to celebrate life’s simple pleasures before they dissipate. His voice was a warm hug from an old friend who’d never lie to you, that mate who could convince you to see and accept yourself. Ultimately Withers’ consistent truth-telling turned him into a universally beloved artist with less visibility than the Loch Ness Monster.

ACT 1: Invaluable

Bill Withers was a stutterer. He grew up in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and struggled to verbally communicate his desires, although he made it quite clear that he didn’t want to work in a coal mine in Slab Fork, West Virginia.

He escaped to the Navy at 17, and after a nine-year bid, he decamped to California and focused on his music career, spending an additional six years polishing his songwriting while installing airplane toilets. His demos excited Sussex Records’ CEO Clarence Avant (on his way to becoming The Black Godfather), and Withers soon recorded his folky soulful tunes with folky Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills, & Nash) and soulful Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the M.G.’s) on his debut album Just As I Am (Sussex, 1971). His first single ran barely over two minutes, had no chorus, and contained a mere 42 words, including two that he mournfully repeated 26 times:

“And I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I KNOW…”

“Ain’t No Sunshine” became a million-selling international Top 20 hit, and the honorable 32-year-old Withers officially entered the disreputable music business.

ACT 2: Invisible

Bill Withers was prolific. His fruitful time at Sussex produced three studio albums bursting with hits like the friendly “Lean on Me”, the masochistic “Use Me”, and the unsettling “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?”. He also unfurled his underrated concert album Live at Carnegie Hall (Sussex, 1973), an event that doubled as a benefit for the Stuttering Association for the Young. When Sussex folded, he found himself on Columbia Records with A&R “blaxperts” who meddled with his material—or as I call it— he suffered from “The Curse of the Black Genius”.

The record industry sprouted from a network of shady bar owners, jukebox-owning mobsters, and underworld talent managers, all of whom believed that Artistry got in the way of big money. But as the industry grew and occasionally made space for white geniuses to exist in the pop world (Brian Wilson, Brian Eno), the Black geniuses received so little support they usually stopped recording studio albums in the prime of their career.

  • André 3000: one soundtrack album released 13 years ago
  • D’Angelo: a 14-year gap between his 2nd and 3rd album
  • Missy Elliott: 15 years since her last album
  • Lauryn Hill: one studio album released in 22 years

Columbia’s constant meddling prevented Withers from recording an album for over seven years, an eternity for a man who recorded his entire catalog in the previous seven years. But his blue-collar roots and life experience meant he had no time for his label’s foolishness, and he developed another way to release music.

His 1981 duet with Grover Washington Jr., “Just the Two of Us”, was a smash hit for Washington’s label Elektra, which jolted Columbia into releasing Withers’s “Schoolhouse Rock”-like single “U.S.A.”, which tanked. After delivering his eighth album Watching You, Watching Me in 1985, he didn’t make another one for the next 35 years of his life. He maintained such a low profile that the average person didn’t know if he was still alive. What was he doing?

“I became very interested [in the question], can I still stay in this business and be effective and make a living, and not have to play this fame game? I wasn’t any good at it. The fame game was kickin’ my ass.” — Bill Withers

ACT 3: Invincible

Bill Withers retired from view, raised a family, and put them to work in the family business: managing his publishing empire. His ownership of his songs, and his ability to license them, set off an avalanche of cover versions and musical interpolations that have kept his music alive despite his vanishing act.

Club Nouveau’s hip-hop spin on ” Lean on Me” ascended to number one in 1987 and inspired the title of the Morgan Freeman film called… Lean on Me. Blackstreet’s 1992 slow-jam “No Diggity” is based on a chopped-up sample from Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands”. “Ain’t No Sunshine” has spawned recently charted interpretations from the heavy metal Black Label Society, South African choral group Lady Blacksmith Mambazo, and pop stars Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello.

After the 2006 documentary Still Bill reminded fans that he wasn’t dead, he started attending music award shows to begrudgingly accept trophies while avoiding microphones that could trick him into singing publicly. However, John Legend made that happen at the 2015 Rock Hall Induction Ceremony.

Ever the iconoclast, his last recorded composition “Playin’ the Loser Again” appeared on country singer Jimmy Buffett’s 2004 album License to Chill. Buffett was the old friend who convinced him that the world needed that hug of a voice one more time.

“Don’t give me somethin’
To build all around
And just for a thrill
You tear it all down

Don’t make me hope again
Knowin’ when
You’ve grown tired of me
That you’ll just disappear
And leave me waiting here
Playin’ the loser again”

Bill Withers died from heart complications on 30 March 2020, at the age of 81. He leaves a small but powerful cache of songs that will continue to add comfort for generations.

“I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.” — Bill Withers