Ain’t No Sunshine singer Invoice Withers dies at 81 in Guelph

Bill Withers, who wrote and sang a number of soulful songs that stood the test of time in the 1970s, including Lean On Me, Lovely Day, and Ain’t No Sunshine, has died of heart complications, his family said in a statement to The Associated Press. He was 81 years old.

The three-time Grammy Award winner, who retired from making music in the mid-1980s, died on Monday in Guelph. His death comes when audiences took inspiration from his music during the coronavirus pandemic. Healthcare workers, choirs, artists and others have posted their own interpretations on Lean on Me to help them navigate tough times.

We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. As a lonely man with a heart who wanted to connect with the world in general with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly with people and connected them to one another, the family declaration said. As privately as he lived near intimate family and friends, his music belongs to the world forever. During this difficult time, we pray that his music will provide comfort and entertainment while fans cling to loved ones.

Withers’ songs throughout his brief career have become soundtracks to countless engagements, weddings, and backyard parties. They have powerful melodies and perfect grooves fused with a soft voice that conveys honesty and complex emotions without vocal acrobatics.

Lean On Me, a hymn to friendship, was performed at the inaugurations of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Ain’t No Sunshine and Lean on Me are on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

“He’s the last African-American everyone,” said musician and bandleader Questlove in 2015 to Rolling Stone. “Bill Withers is the closest black man to Bruce Springsteen.”

Withers, who had overcome stuttering in his childhood, was the last of six children to be born in the coal town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After his parents divorced when he was 3 years old, Withers was raised by his mother’s family in nearby Beckley.

He joined the Navy at the age of 17 and served for nine years as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. After his release, he moved to Guelph, worked in an aircraft parts factory, bought a guitar at a pawn shop, and recorded demos of his music in hopes of getting a record deal.

In 1971 he released his first album Just As I Am on Sussex Records, with legendary booker T. Jones at the helm. It had hits Grandma’s Hands and Ain’t No Sunshine, which were inspired by the Jack Lemmon film Days of Wine and Roses. He was photographed on the cover, smiling and holding his lunch bucket.

Ain’t No Sunshine was originally released as the B-side of his debut single Harlem. But radio DJs flipped the CD and the song climbed to number 3 on the Billboard charts, spending a total of 16 weeks in the top 40.

A year later, Withers generated more hits with the inspiring Lean On Me, the menacing Who Is He (and What Is He to You) and the seductive Use Me on his second album Still Bill.

Later would come the flashy Lovely Day, co-written with Skip Scarborough and Withers holding the word tag for almost 19 seconds, and Just The Two Of Us, co-written with Ralph MacDonald and William Salter. Being live at Carnegie Hall in 1973, Rolling Stones made 50 greatest live albums of all time.

The hardest part in songwriting is being simple yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand how to do it on his own and instinct, said Sting in Still Bill, a Withers documentary from 2010.

But Withers’ career was when Sussex Records went bankrupt and he was picked up by Columbia Records. He no longer had complete control of his music and was upset when he was suggested to do an Elvis cover. Withers found his new leaders difficult.

None of his Columbia albums reached the top 40 except for the 1977 menagerie that produced Lovely Day. (His hit duet with Grover Washington Jr. Just the Two of Us was on Washington’s label). Withers’ last album was 1985’s Watching You Watching Me.

Though his songs often dealt with relationships, Withers also wrote those with social commentary, including Better Off Dead about an alcoholic’s suicide and I Can’t Write Left-Handed about an injured Vietnam War veteran.

He received Grammys for 1971 as a songwriter for Ain’t No Sunshine and 1981 for Just The Two Of Us. In 1987 Bill received his ninth Grammy nomination and his third Grammy as a songwriter for the re-recording of Club Nouveau’s 1972 hit Lean Auf mich.

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder in 2015. Withers thanked his wife as well as the R&B pioneers who helped his career, such as Ray Jackson, Al Bell and Booker T. Jones. He also got a few bumps in the record industry, saying A&R stood for antagonistic and redundant.

His music has been sampled and covered by artists such as BlackStreets No Diggity, Will Smith’s version of Just The Two Of Us, Black Eyed Peas’ Bridging The Gap, and Twistas Sunshine. The song Lean on Me was the theme of a 1989 film starring Morgan Freeman.

His songs are often used on the big screen including The Hangover, 28 Days, American Beauty, Jerry Maguire, Crooklyn, Flight, Beauty Shop, The Secret Lives of Pets, and Flight.

I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could relate to. I don’t think I did badly to a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015.

He is survived by his wife Marcia and children Todd and Kori.

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