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Remembering Bill Withers, Singer-Songwriter Of 'Ain't No Sunshine' And 'Lean On Me'


Bill Withers, the sweet-voiced baritone behind such classic songs as "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean On Me," has died. Withers was 81 years old. According to a family statement given to the Associated Press, he died Monday in Los Angeles due to what the family called heart complications. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has an appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Bill Withers wrote and sang a string of emotionally plainspoken songs that became iconic.


BILL WITHERS: (Singing) Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain. We all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow. Lean on me...

TSIOULCAS: Withers was born in a coal mining town in West Virginia on the Fourth of July in 1938. He was the first man in his family not to go into the mines. He joined the Navy right out of high school to get away and eventually wound up in Los Angeles working in a factory. He didn't become a star until he was in his 30s, and he walked away from fame just 14 years later as he told NPR's Morning Edition in 2015.


WITHERS: I wasn't socialized as a musician. It wasn't the only way I knew how to live. You figure I was in my 30s when I started doing this.

TSIOULCAS: He was already singing at small clubs around Los Angeles at night. But between shifts at the factory, he picked up the guitar and started writing songs. He put out his first record when he was 32 years old.


WITHERS: (Singing) Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not a warm when she's away. Ain't no sunshine when she's gone and she's always gone too long anytime she goes away.

TSIOULCAS: That first indelible hit was from his debut album, which was called "Just As I Am." The album cover showed a photo of him in front of the factory where he still worked, holding his lunch pail. His next album, "Still Bill," featured two more hits, "Lean On Me" and "Use Me."


WITHERS: (Singing) I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used, won't you just keep on using me until you use me up?

TSIOULCAS: His first few albums were released on a small label called Sussex. It went bankrupt, and he signed with the powerhouse Columbia Records in 1975. It wasn't a happy marriage. Withers chafed at Columbia's suggestions, like recording covers of Elvis Presley songs. Not one of his five Columbia albums reached the top 40.


WITHERS: (Singing) Just the two of us building them castles in the sky, just the two of us, you and I.

TSIOULCAS: In 1981, Withers had his last big hit. He appeared on "Just The Two Of Us" with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. Four years later, his recording deal with Columbia ended, and Withers walked away from stardom. He literally became unrecognizable in public as he told Morning Edition's David Greene about an encounter at a Los Angeles restaurant.


WITHERS: And these ladies looked like they had just come from church or something, and they were talking about this Bill Withers song. So I was going to have some fun with them and I said, I'm Bill Withers. And this lady said, you ain't no Bill Withers. You too light-skinned to be Bill Withers.

DAVID GREENE: Did you convince them that you're Bill Withers?

WITHERS: Even after I showed them my driver's license they weren't buying it.

TSIOULCAS: Bill Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. At the time, he told Rolling Stone magazine, quote, I don't think I've done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, W.Va.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.


WITHERS: (Singing) You just call on me brother when you need a hang. We all need somebody to lean on. I just might have a problem that you'll understand. We all need somebody to lean on. Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.