It all began for Withers in a tiny coal mining camp called Slab Fork, West Virginia. He grew up as a small, asthmatic stutterer, and realized early on that his only hope of getting out was to join the Navy. He was stationed in Guam, and after being discharged he worked a number of jobs in Los Angeles, notably one that saw him installing toilets in 747’s. He had toyed with the guitar for years and never saw it as a viable career, but then he began to write songs. He was rejected by all the major labels, where it was felt that at 32 years of age he was simply too old to be starting a career in music. He finally found a home at Sussex Records on the basis of a demo he had submitted. Sussex owner Clarence Avant assigned Booker T. to produce the first Withers album, and Stephen Stills played guitar. The album, Just as I Am, was released in 1971, and contained Withers’ first massive hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” for which he won a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song.
Withers released his second album, Still Bill, in 1972, and it contained another huge hit, “Lean On Me.” Later that same year, Live at Carnegie Hall was released. When Sussex became the target of an IRS investigation and was shuttered, Withers got a deal with Columbia, where he was signed in 1975. There were more hits, including “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day,” and more Grammys, but Withers was not comfortable at Columbia and ended his association with the label after the 1985 album release Watching You, Watching Me.
Withers walked away from the music business, but that’s not to say that he ever walked away from music. He installed a studio in his home, and according to his wife he’s been making music all along, but not releasing any of it. As Withers himself says, he lacks the desire to show-off. The film traces his extremely tentative steps back toward the spotlight. We see him first as an observer, then as a participant in a recent Brooklyn concert paying tribute to his music. We are there when Withers calls songwriter/guitarist Raul Midon to arrange a collaboration on some new music that Withers has been working on, and we watch them work together in the studio. In one of the most moving scenes in a very moving film, we see Withers’ daughter Kori, a talented singer herself, emerge from the long shadow cast by her father as they work together in the studio.
Filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, who initially had difficulty in gaining access to Withers, finally secured a four hour interview. Those four hours eventually expanded into more than 300 hours of film. They secured the participation of Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Sting, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, among others. Their cameras follow Withers on his visit to Slab Fork, providing the context for the story that follows. They accompany Withers when he is honored by a New York theater company made up of young people with stuttering problems. Withers weeps as he’s inspired by the children who were, in turn, inspired by him, and we’re weeping right along with him, as we are when he breaks down with pride after hearing his daughter sing. Through it all, we’re treated to reflections on a well-lived life from Withers himself.
Bill Withers turned 70 years-old while Still Bill was being shot. He’s had time to consider his life, and he’s used that time very wisely indeed. He made an epic choice 25 years ago, and for him, it was clearly the correct choice. As wonderful as it would be to have new music from Bill Withers, after seeing this film, I almost hope he resists the temptation to re-enter the arena. But if and when he does, I’ll welcome him back. Spend some time with this film, you’ll see what I mean.