American singer and songwriter Bill Withers, whose songs from the 1970s have provided immeasurable inspiration in the decades since they first aired, died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 81 due to heart complications.
Withers earned international acclaim for songs like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” — both are on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time — as well as “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” His 1973 album “Live at Carnegie Hall” is among Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.
The three-time Grammy Award-winning artist enjoyed an active music career that lasted from 1970 to 1985, culminating in a 2015 induction by Stevie Wonder into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” a family statement said. “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.”
Overshadowed by his prowess as a musician were the nine years Withers spent in uniform as a United States sailor.
The West Virginia native enlisted at the age of 17 as an aviation mechanic, leaving behind his mother and the home he shared with five siblings.
It was during his nine-year Navy career that Withers, who had been burdened by a stutter since childhood, famously overcame his speech impediment. Spending time on liberty pursuing music with fellow sailors ensued.
“Bill Withers exemplifies the men and women of our sea services who develop their character and talents while serving in the military and go on to live lives of consequence,” retired Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, who currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Navy Memorial, said in an email to Navy Times.
Withers “touched every American’s life over the last 50 years and, through his music and his example, has made our world a better place.”
The U.S. Navy Memorial Board was planning to present Withers with the Lone Sailor Award at the organization’s 2021 awards dinner in Washington, Thorp said. The award was to recognize Withers joining “an impressive list of sea service veterans who have distinguished themselves by drawing upon their military experience to become successful in their subsequent careers and lives, while exemplifying the core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment.”
“I have communicated with Bill’s wife and she has agreed for us to posthumously present the Lone Sailor Award,” Thorp said in the email. “We will do this at a time and place to be determined. In this difficult time for all of us, please keep Bill Withers and his family, as well as all of our sea service members and their families, in your thoughts and prayers.”
Following his discharge from the Navy in the mid-1960s Withers moved to Los Angeles, where, while working for an aircraft parts factory, he purchased a guitar from a pawn shop and began recording demos.
His employment in the parts factory wouldn’t last long.
Sussex Records caught wind of the young musician and signed him to a contract in 1971. That year, Withers released his first album, “Just As I Am,” featuring the hit song “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
“Lean on Me” and “Use Me” followed one year later on his follow-up album, “Still Bill.”
Withers was “a solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large,” the family said. “With his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.”
And the world took notice.
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, The Roots frontman Questlove called Withers “the last African-American Everyman. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
“I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with,” Withers told Rolling Stone in 2015.
“I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
Withers is survived by his wife, Marcia, and two children, Todd and Kori.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.