Bill Withers, a onetime Navy aircraft mechanic who after teaching himself to play the guitar wrote some of the most memorable and often-covered songs of the 1970s, including “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me,” died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
His death was announced in a statement from his family. His son, Todd, said he had heart problems.
Withers, who had an evocative, gritty R&B voice that could embody loss or hope, was in his 30s when he released his first album, “Just as I Am,” in 1971. It included “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a mournful lament (“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/And she’s always gone too long/Anytime she goes away”) that cracked the Billboard Top 10. Other hits followed, perhaps none better known than “Lean on Me,” an anthem of friendship and support that hit No. 1 in 1972 and has been repurposed countless times by a wide variety of artists.
There were also “Use Me” (1972), “Lovely Day” (1977) and “Just the Two of Us” (1981), among other hits. But after the 1985 album “Watching You Watching Me,” frustrated with the music business, Withers stopped recording and performing.
“I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015, when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
“Bill was a mystical man,” Leo Sacks, who supervised the rerelease of Withers’ catalog for Sony Legacy Recordings in 2012 (a package that won a Grammy for best historical recording), said by email. “Like a Greek oracle. But he let the songs speak for themselves. He sang so conversationally and universally, like he was sitting next to you. His songs made every word count.”
William Harrison Withers Jr. was born July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, West Virginia, to William and Mattie (Galloway) Withers. His mother was a maid and his father worked in the coal mines.
At 17, eager to avoid a coal-mine career himself, Withers joined the Navy.
“My first goal was, I didn’t want to be a cook or a steward,” he told Rolling Stone. “So I went to aircraft-mechanic school.”
He spent nine years in the service, some of it stationed in Guam. He quit the Navy in 1965, while stationed in California, and eventually got a job at an airplane parts factory. A visit to a nightclub to see Lou Rawls perform was a catalyst for changing his life.
“I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting,” he said. “Then Rawls walked in and all these women are talking to him.”
He bought a cheap guitar at a pawnshop, started learning to play it and writing songs, and eventually recorded a demo. Clarence Avent, a music executive who had just founded an independent label, Sussex, took note and set him up with keyboardist Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & the MG’s, to produce an album.
“Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” Jones told Rolling Stone. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”
Withers was laid off from his factory job a few months before “Just as I Am” came out. After the album’s release, he recalled, he received two letters on the same day. One was from his workplace asking him to return to work. The other was from “The Tonight Show,” where he appeared in November 1971.
That “Ain’t No Sunshine” became a hit off that album was somewhat unexpected.
“‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ was the B-side to ‘Harlem’,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2015, referring to another track from the album, “until the DJs turned it over.”
The song, he said, had just come to him one day.
“I was watching the movie ‘The Days of Wine and Roses,’ looked out the window and it crossed my mind,” he told The Plain Dealer. “Probably some girl had left me, but ego preservation has taught me to avoid inconvenient truths.”
“Ain’t No Sunshine” won the Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues song. “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us” (a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., written with William Salter and Ralph MacDonald) won the same award.
Withers released six other studio albums in the 1970s, for Sussex and then Columbia, and performed across the country and beyond. One memorable appearance was at the music festival in Zaire in 1974 that preceded the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the famed heavyweight fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.
But he also played clubs like the Bottom Line in Manhattan.
“Mr. Withers’s lyrics are among the most thoughtful in all of pop music,” Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times, reviewing a 1976 show there, “but his work also has its physical side. Many of his tunes simmer irresistibly, as if cooking over a low flame.”
Withers chafed at Columbia, clashing with executives, and after “Watching You Watching Me” in 1985, he was done with the music business. Years later he liked to tell stories about not being recognized. One such incident occurred at a Los Angeles restaurant.
“Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles up on Pico,” he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2015, “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. I said, I’m Bill Withers, and this lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You too light-skinned to be Bill Withers.’”
Withers’ brief marriage to actress Denise Nicholas in the 1970s ended in divorce. In 1976 he married Marcia Johnson. She and their son survive him, along with their daughter, Kori, and a sister, Florence Mather.
In 2015, in advance of a tribute concert in his honor at Carnegie Hall, Withers was interviewed at a restaurant by a reporter for The Times. The talk turned to how, with no music training, he managed relatively late to fashion a career in music.
“It was just something I decided to do,” he said. “If I decided to build one of these fountains” — he pointed to a decoration on the restaurant’s patio — “I could probably do it.”
He could also probably have resumed his career at any time.
“Late in life, he would tease us about recording again,” Sacks said. “But I think he was truly ambivalent. He said he didn’t think anyone was interested in what an ‘old man’ had to say. And that was Bill to a tee: wily, cunning, self-effacing. Utterly disingenuous.”