Maybe it’s not manly to say, “I’m scared.” But for Bill Withers, being a man isn’t about ignoring fear. It's about getting things done in spite of it, and knowing when to ask for help. Before he wrote some of the most memorable hits of the 70s and 80s—songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lean on Me”—Withers was a stuttering boy in a poor mining town.
I spoke with Withers, a fellow West Virginian, about leaving his small town, caring for his dying father, and finding the courage to make something of himself.
The true meaning of fear:
If I were gonna write anything longer than a song, I would write about fear. People get stuck in situations and they want to do something else but they’re afraid. And there’s no way not to be afraid. But to me, courage is not not being afraid; it’s, what do you do in spite of being afraid.
Losing his father early:
Well, it wasn’t like he dropped dead from a heart attack. He was sick for a while, so there’s a reality to life that you can see certain things coming, and so you prepare. You know, you miss somebody that dies, but I was prepared to go on with life. Or maybe that’s just my personality.
What he'll be remembered for:
I know what I’ll be remembered for, you know? There’s a reality to [it] — I’m sitting in my wife’s office, and her job is to license and track these songs. So I’ll be remembered for the ones that send her downstairs to the bank the most. That’s it, you know what I mean. You’re remembered for the things that made the most noise.
Bill Withers visits the USC football team in 2009 (wait for 1:18)
Trailer for the 2009 documentary "Still Bill"
Live on WNET Channel 13 in 1971
"I Am My Father's Son" with Johnny Mathis, a song Withers wrote for Bill Russell in 2013
Bill Withers: Don't worry about that, sugar. If something bothers me, you know, I would say, I don't want to talk about that. I'm not that fragile, you know.
BW: Death, Sex & Money.
It's the show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
BW: Who in the world would come up with a title like that?
AS: It's all the essential stuff, right?
BW: Yeah, yeah if you reverse them, it's the story of a lot of people's lives. It's the story of rock 'n' roll right there.
This guy knows something about that.
BW: My name is Bill Withers.
And you know his songs. Ain't No Sunshine. Lean On Me. Lovely Day. Just the Two of Us. Use Me. Bill Withers hasn't released a new studio album in almost thirty years. But, he's totally ok with that.
BW: When you live this long, living is sort of like a habit. Like a lot of people, if I'd known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself. I should be doing yoga and you know riding the exercise bike. But I go in and look at the treadmill every morning and then I turn on the TV.
He's in his mid-seventies now. He was a grown man, in his early thirties already, when his first album came out. He worked with producer Booker T. Jones on it and it won him a Grammy and he knew he would never have to worry about money again. But Bill Withers grew up poor, in West Virginia. He was the last of six kids.
BW: Six that lived to be adults. You know, the infant mortality rate was high so I think my mother had about thirteen kids but six of us lived to be adults.
Slab Fork is the name of the town where he grew up. At least until he was three years old. That's when his parents split up and his mom moved to a little city near by called Beckley.
BW: My father was very faithful, he picked us up every Friday. so we lived weekends in Slab Fork and the week in Beckley. And then I went back and lived with my father for one year. The last year of his life I lived with him. You know, he needed some help.
AS: So were you taking care of him when he was ailing?
BW: Well we were taking care of each other. Eleven and twelve I was with him. At that age, when you're with an adult, you're kind of taking care of each other.
AS: What was your father like, what kind of man was he?
BW: Well he was a very stable guy. He was the treasurer for everything. He was the treasurer for the union, the United Mine Workers Union over there. And he was the treasurer for the church and that kind of, you know...
AS: That says a lot.
AS: You describe him as a man of stability and consistency. What was it like to lose him when you were just becoming a man?
BW: Well, it wasn't like he dropped dead from a heart attack. He was sick for awhile so there's a reality to life that you can see certain things coming so you prepare. You know, you miss somebody that dies but I was prepared to go on with life. Or maybe that's just my personality.
AS: A realist. Maybe you got that from your father.
BW: Probably so, yeah.
AS: Do you remember your childhood in Slab Fork and the in Beckely. Do you remember it as a happy time?
BW: I remember it as trying to get through it time. I stuttered until I was about thirty. So mostly I remember thinking about getting out. I wasn't going to go into those coal mines. Since I stuttered, you know, people kind of bother you when you stuttered. One of the big influences on me was a little guy named Virgil, that owned a newsstand. Virgil was probably less than five feet tall, he walked on crutches and looked like he had a volleyball in the back of his shirt. And I was shinning shoes over there and I would go buy comic books. One day I went to buy a comic book and I wanted one that was behind the coutner so I had to ask for it. So when Virgil noticed that I stuttered, rather than laughing like everybody else did, he said "I think you can get some help for that." As fate would have it, that little man who couldn't walk without crutches, became my male figure because that was very macho to me. You know, a bunch of guys walking around flexing their muscles drinking moonshine and fighting each other on the weekends. That wasn't masculine to me, that was dumb. Virgil kind of, he let me know that maybe something could be done about it, that I didn't have to stutter for the rest of my life. He got me one session with a therapist and we couldn't afford to go back but it put the seed in my mind.
That stutter, Bill Withers struggled with it for a long time. But songwriting always came easy to him.
BW: Something crosses your mind and then you try to say it and make it rhyme.
BW: It's wordplay, you know.
But before he could make any music, Bill Withers had to get out of the mountains. So he looked to the military. He joined the navy and was a mechanic. But then that ended.
BW: I was terrified when I got out of the navy like that because I didn't know how things were going to work out. But then mostly I knew I had to make a living so I worked at Ford motor company. I worked at IBM, you know, whatever.
AS: Tell me about that time. You're out of the navy, you're working and living in California, you're trying to break into the music business. And it's not just a year, it's not just two years. It's year three, year four, year five.
AS: When you think of yourself when you were that age, I mean you're in your early thirties. Were you confident? Or were you still sort of looking for some signs from the world that you were going to be ok?
BW: Well you know, I'm not into like false humility. So certain things you don't try if you don't think you can do it. So obviously I thought I could do it because I went through a great effort to do it. I mean it's not, I don't think you can get into something like sports or the music business by accident. You have to [put yourself on the line. And to put yourself on the line you have to at least think you can do it, you know. If I was going to write anything longer than a song, I would write about fear. People get stuck in situations and they want to do something else but they're afraid. And there's no way to not be afraid. To me, courage is not not being afraid, it's what you do in spite of being afraid. Fear, fear disguises itself as anger and stuff. Ego will make you call fear something other than what it is. I mean, it's not very macho to say "I'm scared."
Turns out Bill Withers has been thinking about what's macho and what makes a man for a long time. A couple of years ago, he went to the USC football locker room to give them a pep talk. He said "you don't have to give up any of your machismo if you lean on each other." And then, the room full of big, thick football players all stood up and sang "Lean on Me" with him.
Try and watch it and not smile. It's on our website at deathsexmoney.org. And I know, I hate the Trojans too.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money at WNYC.
Bill Withers was five years out of the Navy and had worked a string of manufacturing jobs. That's when he decided that breaking into the music business was one of those things he was going to have to do one his own.
BW: Waiting for some guy with a cigar to come and discover you is not going to happen, you have to discover them. So I saved my money and started recording myself and leaving tapes around.
AS: And then one day you got a phone call...
BW: Well, it's not like I got a phone call from some major thing. It was some guy I had never heard of from a record company I had never heard of. So we went in and did half of the record and got kicked out of the studio because the bills weren't paid. So I had to wait another six months to do the other half. Somehow or another this guy was able to get Booker T. to work with me. It was kind of a fly by night. One time we were recording and Stephen Stills was walking down the hallway and Booker was friends with him so he said "hey, Stephen would you come here and play a little bit for us?" So it was kind of like that.
AS: What was that like for you?
BW: I wasn't eighteen years old. I was trying to get something done. I remember when I was recording my first, first song I was working on. Graham Nash came in and sat down in front of me. and in those days Graham had a little taste here and there so he was pretty much drunk. But he was very nice to me. He kept saying "you don't know how good you are." So it was kind of an experience like that. I had been in this military industrial complex my entire life. I'm trying to relate to all of these crazy musicians. Booker was very stable. That helped me a lot.
AS: So your first album comes out called "Just As I Am." At that point, you're laid off from your job that you've had. And there was a day that you get a call back to work and you got another phone call the same day.
BW: Yeah, I got called back to my job and Johnny Carson's people called to see if I would come on the Johnny Carson show. So...
AS: And was there a moment of hesitation or did you know you were going for Johnny and leaving your old life behind?
BW: Well I thought about it. Because everybody that goes on the Johnny Carson show, sometimes they go on there once and they disappear into the night. It's more to say there was a hesitation than the reality of there being one. I mean there's a small likelihood that I would have said, "No, Johnny I'm going up over here and shoot these rivets and eat a bologna sandwich for lunch. So a lot of things you say, because they;re clever and they make you interesting. You know what I mean? It's like when somebody asked me where I was from, if I would have said "Beckley." That doesn't sound too interesting. But "Slab Fork," that has a ring to it. So it's a lot more interesting to say I got a letter from Weber aircraft and johnny Carson at the same time and I actually thought about going back there. There's no way I wasn't going to go on the Johnny Carson show.
AS: Can I ask you a question about money?
AS: When was the moment in your career, in your life when you realized that working a job and earning a wage that those days were behind you?
BW: Well when somebody gave me some money. My first song was a hit song and they gave me a Grammy. That's motivation to, oh, then I should do this again because...
AS: This is working out well, yes.
BW: Yeah, yeah. This is working out, you know.
AS: You know, Mr. Withers, I was looking back at some of the liner notes from your albums. I noticed on making music, you just have a really nice thank you where you say I want to thank everyone who played an instrument or ran a machine on this album.
AS: I wonder, was there part of you, having come from West Virginia, coming from a poor community, that felt at all uncomfortable being the one at the forefront?
BW: No those are things that you get from your mother and your father. That's just manners. And you have people without manners everywhere also. I don't htink you can assign that to being from some particular place. Decorum and things like that, we learn at home. When we're children.
AS: So that was just because you were raised right.
BW: Yeah that would be more credit to my parents.
AS: Your wife, Marsha, who you married in 1976. You said that she's the one who taught you about family. What did you mean when you say that? What did she teach you?
BW: Well, I didn't have one before then and she was a lot more family orientated than me. When I grew up, my brothers and sisters were older. My brother was 24 years older than me. So I never had that whole thing. In fact, it was very annoying to me at first. A whole bunch of people I was used to being by myself and doing what I wanted to do. I don't know if I decided to have kids or not, but they arrived. So then you learn, you try to learn how to do that. It's like if somebody gives you a car then if you can't you become suddenly interested in driving.
AS: How much did becoming a father have to do with your reexamining touring, the life of a touring musician and thinking about committing to putting out studio albums, one after the other.
BW: Well I knew I couldn't raise kids in Los Angeles if I was in Philadelphia and New York and London and somewhere every night. You see, we do what we're licensed to do. By me being a songwriter, most of my money came to my mailbox. I didn't make a lot of money going on tour. So for me being a songwriter, which I could do in the toilet on an old paper bag or even a piece of toilet paper. And my ego didn't need the applause approval.
AS: Why didn't you need that applause?
BW: I don't know. I don't know that just the way I am. You can tell who wants a lot of attention. It's the kid that does somersaults every time company comes over. Then you have another kid sitting in the corner, reading a comic book.
AS: And that was you the kid reading the comic book.
BW: Yeah you know it's like I never got into that entertainer thing anyway. Because I sat on a stool with a guitar I really didn't know how to play but it kept me from having to play. You know, what do you do with your hands?
AS: When you think about your body of work, what do you hope you're remembered for?
BW: Well I know what I'll be remembered for. I meant here's a reality to I'm sitting in my wife's office and her job is to license and track these songs. So I'll be remembered for the ones that send her downstairs to the bank the most. That's it. You're remembered for the things that made the most noise.
AS: So that's what other people will remember you for, when you look back over your own life...
BW: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know what you just said? You said, that's what other people will remember me for.
BW: That's all there is, is other people. I ain't going to remember myself.
AS: That's true.
BW: No, I'm teasing you.
AS: That is true. That's true. However, I want to ask your personal reflections. At this point in your life, when you think about the choices you've made, what do you feel most proud of?
BW: Well I mean I could have done better but I did alright. That's the way I look at it. I could have done better, had I been disciplined, had I not grown up eating every thing on a hog but the holler I would probably be healthier. You know I wish I knew more about civility younger. All the things that we grow into I wish I had known those things younger because I would be healthier and probably more useful and all that kind of stuff. But, the fact is we are born into the situations we were born into. One day you are and you try to do something with yourself. the best advice anybody ever gave me was very simple: go make something out of yourself. So we do the best we can with that. But the whole goal of this is to try to make yourself interesting because nobody comes here to hide.
That's Bill Withers. He turns 76 years old this Fourth of July.
He has a way of describing exactly what life is all about but without a lot of drama. That's what we're after at Death, Sex & Money, going right at the messier details of life. We're brand new and we want to know what kinds of stories about death, sex and money you want to hear. Go to our website at deathsexmoney.org. You can also find us on Facebook and I'm on Twitter @annasale.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money at WNYC.