Make the most of your chances, do the best you can, stop when you’re finished, love your family, enjoy life. – Bill Withers
Born in 1938 in West Virginia, Bill Withers served in the U.S. Navy before launching his musical career. He put out his first album, Just as I Am, in 1971, which featured the hit “Ain’t No Sunshine.” More hits soon followed, including “Lean on Me” and “Lovely Day.” Withers teamed up with Grover Washington Jr. for the 1981 smash “Just the Two of Us” before retiring from performing later that decade.
Early Life and Career
Born on July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, West Virginia, singer-songwriter Bill Withers is known for such hits as “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.” He is the youngest of six siblings who grew up in a small coal mining town. As a child, Withers had a terrible stutter, a speech problem that plagued him well into adulthood.
Withers lost his father, a miner, when he was only 13 years old. Four years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for nine years. Withers moved to Los Angeles, where he started penning songs and making his own demo recordings. He later explained to Billboard that he started writing his own material because “I couldn’t find any songs that didn’t sound like all the others.” To fund his musical efforts, he worked on building toilets for airplanes. His songs eventually attracted the attention of Clarence Avant at Sussex Records, and Withers landed a recording contract with the label.
Successful Singer and Songwriter
Working with Booker T. Jones, Withers put out his first album, Just as I Am, in 1971. This proved to be a smash debut, featuring the R&B and pop hit “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The soulful yet melancholy song also earned Withers his first Grammy Award for best R&B song. The following year, he scored perhaps the biggest hit of his career with “Lean on Me,” off his second album, Still Bill. This uplifting ballad reached the top of the pop and R&B charts in 1972 and has become an enduring classic. “Use Me” was another popular track off that album.
Continuing to perform and record, Withers released + ‘Justments in 1974. The album featured “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” That same year, Withers performed at a music festival in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire), which coincided with Mohammad Ali‘s legendary bout against George Foreman. In the mid-1970s, Withers switched to the Columbia record label and scored another No. 1 R&B hit with “Lovely Day” off his Menagerie album in 1977. This sunny, uptempo song was later covered by Jill Scott.
Withers penned and performed another big hit in 1981 with “Just the Two of Us,” a collaboration with Grover Washington Jr. that netted Withers another Grammy. In 1987, he saw his trademark song “Lean on Me” enjoy a second wave of success as Club Nouveau released their own version of the song. Withers also received a Grammy award for this track as its songwriter.
By the end of the 1980s, Withers had given up performing to focus on his family and other pursuits. “I had fun doing other things,” he explained to Rolling Stone magazine. “Then I had kids. Well, you can’t raise your kids if you’re in Philadelphia and New Orleans and Chicago.” Having briefly been married to actress Denise Nicholas in the 1970s, Withers has three children with his second wife, Marcia.
Over the years, Withers has received numerous accolades for his contributions to music. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. At the award ceremony, Withers took the stage to give a rare performance, singing “Ain’t No Sunshine” with his daughter Kori. His life and music became the subject of the 2009 documentary Still Bill.
Withers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.