This month Sony Legacy has released what amounts to a long overdue re-evaluation of the career of Bill Withers. The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection is a nine-disc set that contains all of the albums that Withers recorded for the labels between 1971 and 1985. The box set comes on the heels of the acclaimed 2009 Withers documentary Still Bill.
So why has this artist remained perennially under-appreciated over the years despite indelible hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” “Lean On Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Just the Two of Us”? As you might expect, it’s a complicated story.
For one thing, Withers got a late start to his music career. He was born in a coal mining town in West Virginia in 1938. He joined the Navy when he was 18, and it was during his nine year career that he became interested in singing and songwriting. A couple of years after his discharge in 1965, he headed west to pursue a musical career.
It wasn’t easy to break into the business however, and Withers found himself working on assembly lines in aircraft factories in Los Angeles during the day, while working the clubs at night. At the same time he started making demos and shopping them around town.
In 1970, Clarence Avant at Sussex Records heard one of Withers’ demos and signed him to the label. Better yet, Avant hired Booker T. Jones to produce Withers’ first album, and Stephen Stills to play guitar on it. The album didn’t come out until 1971 as a result of budget difficulties that delayed completion, but when it was finally released, the singles “Grandma’s Hands” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” were included. At 33 years of age, Withers was an overnight sensation.
The following year Withers won a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which had already sold over a million copies, and been awarded a platinum disc. Withers recorded a second album and the single “Lean On Me” became #1 in July, 1972. The single went on to sell three million copies. “Use Me” followed and was his third million seller.
A live album from a Carnegie Hall concert came out in late 1972, followed by one more album for Sussex in 1974. Then a legal dispute with the label kept the singer out of the studio for a time. In 1975 he signed with Columbia and released a successful album each year for the next four years.
In 1977, Withers released the Menagerie album, which contained the hit “Lovely Day”, a song he co-wrote with Skip Scarborough. It wasn’t as big a hit as some of his earlier efforts, reaching #6 on the Billboard R&B chart, and #30 on the Hot 100 chart. Ray Parker, Jr. and Russ Kunkel were among the session musicians who played on the single.
“Lovely Day” has been covered by many artists over the years including Diana Ross, Maroon 5, and Luther Vandross. It has also been sampled many times, appearing on records by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and LL Cool J.
There were problems with Columbia, which caused Withers to focus on collaborations. One of those, with Grover Washington, Jr., turned into the gigantic hit “Just the Two of Us” in 1980. In 1985 Withers released his final album for Columbia, Watching You Watching Me. To date it is the last album he has released though rumors of a new one persist.
Along with the business problems with Sussex, and Columbia, there were personal problems as well. Withers’ one-year marriage to actress Denise Nicholas in the early ’70s was incendiary and resulted in some unpleasant headlines for the singer. Despite all of that, Withers has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards, winning three times. In 2007, “Lean On Me” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
It’s gratifying to know that this wonderful artist is finally getting the attention, love and respect that he has deserved all along.