Bill Withers: An American in Full

The singer-songwriter who walked away from stardom 25 years ago is now the subject of a documentary film.

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Bill Withers is an American original. His voice is as clear as the wind and just as carefree. Withers has that gift from the gods so overlooked in popular songwriters: a well-tuned ear. Ringtones of his “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us” summon Generation X to their cell phones. Not bad for a singer/songwriter who walked away from the performing stage 25 years ago. Withers, now the subject of a documentary, Still Bill, put words into songs that lasted. And even now, as a senior citizen, he speaks in the timeless vernacular of his people.

“I got tired of being somewhere else, so I went home,” Withers says, describing his month-long stay in Zaire during the 1974 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman world boxing title match. Such a line—and this one never made it into a song—is born of a gifted ear finely tuned to common speech.

This gifted ear of the popular songwriter usually comes with a conscience. It’s a mysterious art, that of the recording angel who observes and takes note. Chuck Berry was so ordained, as were Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and John Lennon and Paul McCartney, writers of “Eleanor Rigby.”

This consciousness guided Bill Withers during his gig at the “Rumble in the Jungle,” as Ali tagged the championship bout in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I had never been in a country where there was a dictator,” the singer/songwriter told Tavis Smiley, “a place where there was such a disparity in wealth.” “A few people had all the money” and the “very opulent lifestyle” of President Mobutu unnerved Withers, a Southerner who had lived through the struggle for equality in America.

The documentary reveals a remarkable American singer/songwriter who, after a late start at age 32, walked away from stage stardom. He was 45 at the time. During his 13-year career, he wrote such classics as “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” “Just the Two of Us” and scores of lesser tunes remembered for the feelings they stir and the stories they tell. (Produced by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, the film is being shown in limited screenings around the country.)

After talking with a soldier who’d lost an arm in battle, Withers wrote “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” The wounded GI implores a buddy to “write a letter to my mother … to get a deferment for my younger brother.” The prayers of Rev. Harris’ were solicited because “I ain’t gonna live … to get much older.” The ex-Navy man then penned a flat, non-accusatory statement of a wounded soldier caught up in the full, deadly folly of that American war:

Strange little man over here in Vietnam/ I ain’t never seen/ bless his heart/ I ain’t never done nothing to/ he done shot me in my shoulder.”

Still Bill plays near the surface of this brooding, complex man. There’s a moving account of the artists’ strong relationship with his second wife and children, a devotion that all but explains why he left the performing stage. (Those with long memories will be disappointed that the film skips over his reportedly tumultuous marriage to actress Denise Nicholas.)