RIP Bill Withers
Bill Withers died today. One of the musical giants of my life. I grew to love him as a child, with my mother playing his music constantly in the car. Of all the artists she loved, he was the one immediately connected with and appreciated. At least that's how I remember it. Unlike Eagles, who I hated as a child, dismissing them as music for old people and even worse: country music, the genre I loathed for reasons I barely understood. Now I appreciate Eagles for their beautiful songs, and have found the niches of country that I can find myself within. But Bill Withers was love from first listen.
As a young adult at college, I brought Bill Withers with me. Probably pirated MP3s of his hits. Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye were my oldies. I still hadn't discovered Sam Cooke yet, but Bill was soul with vocal stylings that almost felt reachable. I could almost do that, at least in my head. The stretch of my range at karaoke. And by that, I mean the most karaoke of karaoke. Copying the stylings, but never the soul. Bill expressed his soul in a way that was direct; simple but powerful. His lyrics, melodies, and performance. It all felt easy, but carried the weight of the world.
In my late 20s, I saw Soul Power, the documentary about the all-star concert in Zaire that was paired with the iconic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. The doc is full of amazing drama and performances, but nothing touched Bill Wither's rendition of “Hope She'll Be Happier.” This brought me to an exploration of all his live albums, and somehow they're even more soulful and powerful than the original studio recordings. The artists I most regret never seeing do a full live show: Prince, Sam Cooke, and Bill Withers.
So I'm sitting here at 40. Listening to Bill Withers sing “Lean On Me” on my record player. I have turned into my parents, and I'm fine with that. They had great taste in music! And being old is not so bad. Bill Withers is dead, but his music lives on. That is the only immortality available to us. Our work, our legacy, and the people we helped shape. And Bill shaped me, and I think helped shape the world, for the better.