Bill Withers, the legendary singer-songwriter behind classic 1970s hits like “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
According to a statement released by his family, Withers died from heart complications.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” his family told The Associated Press on Friday. “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.” The family added, “in this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Withers was born on July 4, 1938, as the son of a West Virginia coal miner. He grew up in a segregated town and served in the Navy after graduating high school. Before his singing career took off, he worked as a milkman and as an aircraft mechanic before he began recording music in his early 30s.
“I started this music thing late,” Withers told Our World with Black Enterprise host Ed Gordon in a rare interview back in 2009. “Music was kind of an early midlife afterthought for me.”
He released his debut album Just As I Am in 1971, which featured “Grandma’s Hands” and the Grammy-winning hit “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He continued to create timeless songs, drawing from gritty blues, R&B, and the era’s confessional style of lyrics throughout his 14-year career in the music industry. He also wrote songs for other artists like Gladys Knight and José Feliciano. Withers earned a total of three Grammy Awards and later entered the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder.
He released his last album in 1985 after enduring ongoing battles with music industry executives at Columbia. Just years after earning his third Grammy Award for his 1980 hit “Just the Two of Us,” Withers notoriously walked away from the entertainment business and never looked back. When asked why he left his lucrative career, he told Black Enterprise that “it just wasn’t in my DNA” to stay in the industry.
“I don’t have that gene that needs to draw attention to myself,” he said. “And I’m also a practical person. I make a good living. There was nothing that drove me to just keep grinding away.”
Watch Withers interview on Our World with Black Enterprise below.