Bill Withers, the singer-songwriter famous for such hits as "Lean on Me," has died of heart complications at 81, his family said in a statement.
The statement read:
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other. As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Withers's death comes, ironically, as health care workers and other have been making and posting renditions of his most famous hit during the COVID-19 battle.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1938 in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers had a stutter to contend with, which made him socially isolated. His dad died when Withers was 13, and he served nine years in the Navy while finding himself. It was during this time that — stutter be damned — he began singing and writing music.
In L.A. from the late '60s, he worked blue-collar jobs while hustling his demo and performing in clubs.
Withers landed a record deal with Sussex Records in 1970. The album Just As I Am was released to acclaim in 1971, buoyed by the instant-classic "Ain't No Sunshine" (#3 Hot 100). The 45 sleeve showed Withers at his job, lunch box in hand.
His Still Bill from 1972 produced the #1 smash "Lean on Me"; "Use Me," which rose all the way to #2; and "Kissing My Love," another Top 40 entry at #31.
Withers experienced a severe setback when his label went belly-up. It interrupted his mojo, he clashed with his new musical home (Columbia), and though he continued recording until 1984, his final chart hits were the influential "Lovely Day" (#30 in 1977) and his duet with Grover Washington Jr. (1943-1999), "Just the Two of Us," a #2 hit in 1981 that appeared on Bill Withers' Greatest Hits.
Withers won three Grammys, including a 1987 trophy for the Club Nouveau cover of "Lean on Me." Like the original, the cover had been a #1 hit, making Withers' song one of only nine to hit #1 with versions by two different artists.
Withers walked away from music after eight studio albums in 1985, but the mark he left was so profound he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
A hero to the working class, Withers — while absent from making music — was not a recluse so much as a private citizen. He did speak out in 2017 about the refugee crisis, and has appeared, sparingly, at tributes to his work.
Married twice, including a brief union with actress Denise Nicholas (b. 1944), Withers is survived by his second wife, Marcia, and their two children, all of whom remain involved with the management of his musical legacy.