1938-2020, Slab Fork, Raleigh County
Singer/songwriter Bill Withers was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork in Raleigh County. One of West Virginia’s most successful songwriters Withers’s career spans four decades, and his music continues to influence today’s soul and hip-hop.
The youngest of six children, Withers was born with a stutter. His father, a coal miner, died when Withers was barely in his teens. He then lived with his mother and grandmother in nearby Beckley and enlisted in the Navy in hopes of escaping the culture of coal and cycle of poverty. It was during his stint in the service that he developed an interest in singing and songwriting.
Following his discharge in 1965, he moved to a run-down section of East Los Angeles and took a job at Douglas Aircraft Corporation assembling toilets for Boeing 747s. He began recording and shopping demo tapes and performing in clubs at night.
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that Clarence Avant signed him to his small Sussex label. Avant chose former Stax Records organist Booker T. Jones to produce Withers’s stunning 1971 debut, Just As I Am. The album featured Stephen Stills playing lead guitar. Withers’s live band included members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” rose to No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts, followed closely by “Grandma’s Hands,” a gospel-tinged reminiscence of his upbringing – and the song Withers said was most influenced by his childhood in West Virginia. “Ain’t No Sunshine” earned Withers a Grammy in 1972 for “Best Rhythm and Blues Song” and was certified gold.
His follow-up LP, Still Bill, included his No. 1 hit, “Lean on Me.” With a simple piano intro that reminded him of the hymns he’d heard growing up, the lyrics recalled Withers’s coal-camp beginnings and stressed the importance of people helping one another in tough times. The LP included his third million-seller, the loose and funky “Use Me.”
Unable to record due to a legal dispute with Sussex, Withers wrote and produced two songs for Gladys Knight & the Pips, and stayed active with performing. Later, signed to CBS Records, his massive hit “Just the Two of Us,” a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., won a Grammy in 1981.
Over the next two decades, younger artists carried on Withers’s legacy while he raised a family. In 1987, Club Nouveau took “Lean on Me” to the top of the pop charts – earning Withers his third Grammy as songwriter for “Best Rhythm and Blues Song.” A few of the artists who re-cut “Use Me” include Grace Jones, Fiona Apple, Better Than Ezra, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Meanwhile, Mark Eitzel, Kenny Rogers, Paul McCartney and Sting all recorded “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Withers’s catalog has also generated interest from hip-hop artists and producers. Kanye West, Will Smith and Tupac Shakur have all enjoyed hits based around a Withers sample.
In 2014, Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection, a nine-disc set featuring Withers’s eight studio albums, as well as his Live at Carnegie Hall, was awarded a Grammy for “Best Historical Recording.”
With nine Grammy nominations to his credit, a 2007 Grammy Hall of Fame induction for “Lean on Me” and a 2015 induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, West Virginia native Bill Withers has left a lasting impression on American music.