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US soul singer Bill Withers dies aged 81

World News | Published:

The songwriter had hits in the 1970s with Lean On Me, Lovely Day and Ain’t No Sunshine.

Obit Bill Withers

US soul singer Bill Withers, who was behind a string of hits in the 1970s including Lean On Me, Lovely Day and Ain’t No Sunshine, has died from heart complications aged 81.

The three-time Grammy Award winner, who withdrew from making music in the mid-1980s, died on Monday in Los Angeles, his family said.

His death comes as the public has drawn inspiration from his music during the coronavirus pandemic, with healthcare workers, choirs, artists and more posting their own renditions of Lean On Me to help get through the difficult times.

“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. 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,” the family statement read.

“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’ songs during his brief career have become the soundtracks of countless engagements, weddings and parties.

They have powerful melodies and perfect grooves melded with a smooth voice that conveys honesty and complex emotions without vocal acrobatics.

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Lean On Me, a paean to friendship, was performed at the inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Obit Bill Withers
Singer-songwriter Bill Withers was a three-time Grammy award winner (Mark Duncan/AP)

Ain’t No Sunshine and Lean On Me are among Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” musician and band leader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

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His death caused a torrent of tributes on social media, including from former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who said Withers’s music has been a cherished part of her life.

“It added to my joy in the good times, and also gave me comfort and inspiration when I needed it most,” she tweeted.

Singer Jose James said “we need his message of unity now more than ever”.

Withers, who overcame a childhood stutter, was born the last of six children in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was three, Withers was raised by his mother’s family in nearby Beckley.

He joined the Navy at 17 and spent nine years in the service as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets.

After his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles, worked at an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop and recorded demos of his tunes in the hope of landing a recording contract.

In 1971, signed to Sussex Records, he put out his first album, Just As I Am, with the legendary Booker T. Jones at the helm.

It had the hits Grandma’s Hands and Ain’t No Sunshine, which was inspired by the Jack Lemmon film Days Of Wine And Roses.

Obit Bill Withers
Bill Withers is survived his wife and two children (Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP)

Withers went on to generate more hits a year later with the inspirational Lean On Me, the menacing Who Is He (And What Is He To You) and the slinky Use Me on his second album, Still Bill.

Later would come the striking Lovely Day, co-written with Skip Scarborough and featuring Withers holding the word “day” for almost 19 seconds, and Just The Two Of Us, co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter.

His Live At Carnegie Hall in 1973 made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.

“The hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that,” Sting said in Still Bill, a 2010 documentary on Withers.

But Withers’ career stalled when Sussex Records went bankrupt and he was scooped up by Columbia Records.

He no longer had complete control over his music and chafed when it was suggested he do an Elvis cover. His new executives found Withers difficult.

None of his Columbia albums reached the Top 40 except for 1977’s Menagerie, which produced Lovely Day.

Withers’ last album was 1985′s Watching You Watching Me.

He was awarded Grammys as a songwriter for Ain’t No Sunshine in 1971 and for Just The Two Of Us in 1981.

In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy nomination and third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of the 1972 hit Lean on Me” by Club Nouveau.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder.

He is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and Kori.

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