Legendary soul singer Bill Withers, who wrote and sang hits like “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” has died from heart complications at age 81, his family confirmed in a statement to the Associated Press.
He was a three-time Grammy Award winner and an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” the family statement said. “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.”
“As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Withers was born in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and struggled to overcome a childhood stutter that made it hard for him to fit in. He served a stint in the Navy before moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, with $250 in his pocket, to start a music career.
In 1971, he put out an album on Sussex Records, titled Just As I Am, with the legendary Booker T. Jones. It had instant hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which was originally released as the B-side of his debut single, Harlem but climbed the charts quickly when radio DJs flipped the disc. It spent 16 weeks in the top 40.
He came out with more hits a year later, including “Lean On Me,” “Who Is He (and What Is He to You),” and “Use Me” on his second album Still Bill. Then came “Lovely Day,” co-written with Skip Scarborough, in which Withers famously sang the word “day” for nearly 19 seconds.
He also released “Just The Two Of Us” on his 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall which made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
When Sussex Records went bankrupt, Withers was signed to Columbia Records, but he complained about being muzzled by the label’s executives, and he struggled to release songs that struck a chord as deeply as his earlier material. He went into early retirement in the 1980s.
In a 2009 documentary, Still Bill, Withers appeared content to have walked away from music when he did.
Withers’ music has not only been used for decades in countless films, weddings, funerals and parties. His songs have often become anthems during times of crises.
Hospital works have reportedly been singing “Lean On Me,” a song about friendship, to each other during the current coronavirus pandemic.
“Lean On Me” was also performed at both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s inaugurations.
“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with,” Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
Rapper Questlove told Rolling Stone that Withers was “the last African-American Everyman... [and] the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
Withers is survived by his wife Marcia Johnson and their two children, Todd and Kori.