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