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.)
As with most earnest artists, Withers’ gift is as mysterious as it is unmistakable. “I’m just a conduit,” he said. “I walk around, and sometimes I’m scratching myself and things cross my mind. So I don’t know where any of that stuff comes from. People ask about songs and things like that, so I don’t know. It’s just the way I am, I guess.”
The artist attributes much of his personality to his grandmother immortalized in one of his classic tunes, “Grandma’s Hands.” In their “valuable role, grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid,” as Withers was a stutterer among his many siblings.
“I wonder what it would have been like if my grandmothers had been on crack,” mused the songwriter, activating his consciousness about the perils of urban street life. “You can tell how much difference it makes in people’s lives when they get good ones.”
There is a curious scene in Still Bill in which the West Virginia wordsmith needles the scholarly antics of Cornel West and his sidekick, Tavis Smiley. Pressing the singer about blacks who “sell out,” the duo, appearing to these tired eyes as poseurs on the make, attempted to explain the term to Withers who neatly cut the ground from beneath him. After rejecting Smiley’s very use of the term “sell-out,” Withers embraced it not as a negative but as a positive. The rattled TV host handed off to the professor who attempted to explain “authenticity” by snatching loose quotes from Shakespeare and heaving them at the songwriter of plain lyrics who rejects the easy stereotype slur.
Born on the Fourth of July, Bill Withers is a prototype omni-American of the sort prescribed by Albert Murray, the great social critic. Living the show-business life for a dozen years, Withers refused to bend his art under the wretched demands of the corrupt music industry.
When asked to “cover” Elvis Presley’s 1969 recording, “In the Ghetto,” for example, Withers was “livid;” in retelling the story, his anger over the incident seemed fresh. Songwriter Mac Davis, who viewed the black community as a white man’s burden, had Elvis singing his bill of particulars: The unwanted “ghetto” child, just “another hungry mouth to feed,” grows up roaming the night streets where he buys a gun, steals a car, and then, running away, gets himself shot “face down on the street with a gun in his hand”—only to have this vicious cycle repeated.
By contrast, Saturday nights in Bill Withers’ Harlem, “the radiator won’t get hot,” true enough; yet, “ever’ry thing’s alright … You can really swing/ and shake your pretty thing/The parties are all out of sight.” Then “Sunday morning here in Harlem/now eve’rybody’s all dressed up/The hip folks getting’ home from the party/and the good folks just got up.”
Steering far clear of this Harlem (or what Mac Davis and Elvis Presley called the ghetto), white American artists generally brick themselves into their bland, little expression of tight, self-exclusion. Blacks like Bill Withers, on the other hand, saturated over the years with white popular culture, tend to synthesize the omni-strains running through in the national pattern.
In the case of “Grandma’s Hands,” Johnny Cash saw his own grandmother in Withers’ hit song about the churchgoing black woman from Withers’ hometown of Slab Fork, W.V. So did Barbra Streisand, who also recorded a version. And Americans across the divide of race, color and immigrant origins see themselves in his songs.
When penning hit lyrics for country singer Jimmy Buffet, Withers was surprised to hear that hillbillies hear “country” in his music. Unlike, say, Mac Davis and Elvis Presley, who merely mimic artists across the racial divide, Withers—as other blacks growing up in a segregated America—listened to and absorbed not only the music, but also the broad range of white culture that dominated the film, television and radio.
The creative range of Withers’ music stems, he says, from having grown up exposed to a dominant culture not his own, albeit one that rejected the contributions of his race. “Country music was on the radio,” he said. “We absorbed things as we walk around [if we allow ourselves]. So there was the blues, and there was country music; then there was Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and I remember even Della Reese. So you absorb all that stuff, and somehow it gets all mixed up inside you, and it comes out.”
As an omni-American descendant of slaves, Withers, the creative artist, took full advantage of having absorbed the culture of other groups in America, including southern and western frontier whites, New Englanders, Native Americans and old-line immigrants from Europe, Ireland and elsewhere.
One can only ponder this Black History Month, whether African Americans will take a page from Withers’ book and win without compromise. Keying on the tactical assertiveness of President Barack Obama, they would do well to step forward and help forge the republic into a better, more enlightened nation by demanding their full entitlements—as Americans in full.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.