William Harrison "Bill" Withers, Jr. (born July 4, 1938) is an African American vocalist and songwriter who performed and recorded from 1970 until 1985. Some of his best-known songs are "Lean on Me", "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," "Just the Two of Us", "Lovely Day," and "Grandma's Hands".
Bill Withers was born the youngest of six children in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. Raised in nearby Beckley, West Virginia, Withers was thirteen years old when his father died. He enlisted with the United States Navy at age eighteen and served for nine years; during which time he became interested in singing and writing songs. Soon after his discharge from the Navy (1965), he relocated to Los Angeles (1967) for a musical career.
Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, including Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs during the night. When he debuted with the song "Ain't No Sunshine" he refused to resign his job because of his belief that the music business was a fickle industry and that he was still a novice compared to other acts.
During early 1970, Withers' demonstration tape was audited favorably by Clarence Avant of Sussex Records. Avant signed Withers to a record deal and assigned Booker T. Jones to produce Withers' first album. Four three-hour studio sessions were planned to record the album, but funding caused the album to be recorded in three sessions with a six-month break between the second and final sessions. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands" as singles. The album features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar.
The album was a success and Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band: drummer James Gadson, guitarist Benorce Blackmon, keyboardist Ray Jackson, and bassist Melvin Dunlap.
At the 14th annual Grammy Awards on Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Withers won his first Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song for "Ain't No Sunshine."
During a hiatus from touring, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill. The single "Lean on Me" went to number one the week of July 8, 1972. A Friday, October 6, 1972 performance on a rainy night was recorded for the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall released November 30, 1972. Withers married actress Denise Nicholas in 1973, during her stint as the main actress of the popular sitcom, Room 222. The couple did not have any children and divorced the next year, during which Withers recorded the album +'Justments. But he became involved in a legal dispute with the Sussex company and was unable to record thereafter.
During this time, he wrote and produced two songs on the Gladys Knight & the Pips record I Feel a Song, and in October 1974 performed in concert together with James Brown, Etta James, and B. B. King at the historic Rumble in the Jungle fight between Foreman and Ali in Zaire. Footage of his performance was included in the 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, and he is heard on the accompanying soundtrack.
Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975. His first release with the label, Making Music, Making Friends, included the single "She's Lonely" which was featured in the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. During the next three years he released an album each year with Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977, containing the successful "Lovely Day") and 'Bout Love (1978).
Due to problems with Columbia, he concentrated on joint projects between 1977 and 1985, including the success, "Just the Two of Us", with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., which was released during June 1980. It won a Grammy on February 24, 1982. Withers next did Soul Shadows with The Crusaders, and In the Name of Love with Ralph MacDonald, the latter being nominated for a Grammy for vocal performance.
In 1985 came Watching You, Watching Me, which featured the Top 40 rated Rhythm&Blues single "Oh Yeah". But Withers ended his business association with the Columbia company after this release.
In 1988, a new version of "Lovely Day" from the 1977 Menagerie album, titled "Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)" and remixed by Ben Liebrand, reached the Top 10 in the United Kingdom, leading to Withers' performance on the long-running Top of the Pops that year. The original release had scored #7 in the UK in 1977, and the re-release scored to #4.
In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy award nomination and on March 2, 1988 his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for the re-recording of Lean On Me by Club Nouveau on their debut album Life, Love and Pain, released in 1986 on Warner Bros. Records.
In 1996, a portion of his song "Grandma's Hands" was sampled in the song "No Diggity" by BLACKstreet, featuring Dr. Dre. The single went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold 1.6 million copies and won a grammy in 1998 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Withers contributed two songs to Jimmy Buffett's July 13, 2004 release "License To Chill." Following the reissues of Still Bill on January 28, 2003 and Just As I Am on March 8, 2005, there was speculation of previously unreleased material being issued as a new album. In 2006, Sony gave back to Withers his previously unreleased tapes.
Bill Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the inaugural class of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Also, in 2007 his "Lean On Me" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Currently, a feature documentary entitled "Still Bill" directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack is being made about Withers.
During the professional semi-hiatus which began in the late 1970s, Withers concentrated more on personal matters than professional recording. In 1976, he married Marcia Johnson and they had two children, Todd and Kori, a law student and a singer/song writer respectively. Marcia eventually assumed the direct management of his Beverly Hills-based publishing companies, in which his children also became involved as they became adults.