Bill Withers, a son of West Virginia who reached the top of the musical world with a string of hit songs in the 1970s, died Monday at the age of 81 in Los Angeles, his family revealed on Friday. Withers’ family told the Associated Press that the singer died from heart complications.
Withers wrote and recorded a string of legendary songs that held up for the rest of his lifetime and will continue to do so beyond it, including “Lean On Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Just the Two Of Us.”
He won Grammy Awards for Best R&B song in 1971 and 1981 for “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just the Two of Us,” respectively.
“In terms of West Virginia music, he was perhaps the most successful songwriter in the history of the state, but it’s bigger than that,” said West Virginia Music Hall of Fame Director Michael Lipton. “His songs are still completely relevant and fresh. They’re still being played, still being used and still being sampled.”
William Harrison Withers was born on July 4, 1938 in Slab Fork, a tiny hamlet of around 200 residents in Raleigh County. The youngest of six children, he lived with his mother and grandmother in Beckley after his parents divorced when he was 3.
His grandmother served as the inspiration for another of his hit songs, “Grandma’s Hands.”
When he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007, Withers explained that his West Virginia upbringing was instrumental in creating “Lean on Me,” a song he would later perform at the presidential inaugurations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“People helped each other get by,” he told WV Public Broadcasting prior to his induction. “When times were hard, people leaned on each other. My family didn’t have a refrigerator, and the people across the street across the street from us didn’t have a phone. So we helped each other. They gave us ice, and we let them use our phone.”
Withers was a late bloomer in the world of music, partially on account of a stutter that carried on from childhood into his 20s.
Hoping to avoid the life his father lived in the coal mines — Withers was only 13 when his father died of health complications from mining — he joined the Navy in 1956.
After nine years in the service, Withers settled down in California, working as a milkman and in an aircraft factory before finally embarking on the career that would make him a household name. In fact, Withers was still working at the airplane factory when the cover photo for his debut album, “Just As I Am,” was taken.
It was on that debut album that Withers shot to stardom as “Ain’t No Sunshine” reached No. 3 on the pop charts.
Withers departed the music business with the unexpected suddenness with which he entered it, never recording an album after 1985 due to his disenfranchisement with record companies.
Withers was inducted in the inaugural class of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
According to Lipton, Withers didn’t just take a one-off trip for his own induction ceremony into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. He attended the event multiple years, including when he was asked to simply provide a video introduction to the ceremony.
In Lipton’s view, Withers lived a life that was uniquely West Virginian in nature, and it was summed up by his music.
“He’s an icon. He was also, in a way, a quintessential West Virginian,” Lipton said. “His life growing up was not easy, in both economic ways and social ways.
“When we talk about West Virginia music, we use him as an example — was it rock, was it soul, was it folk? It was all of those things. That’s the weird, beautiful thing about West Virginia. It’s hard to describe. There’s something about it that’s deep and soulful.”
Withers is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and Kori.