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Bill Withers was not only an American pop music icon, he was a symbol of American music itself. His songs transcended styles and genres and bridged cultures and generations. “Lean On Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Grandma’s Hands” and many of his other classics can’t be easily labeled, but they can be and have been performed by soul, blues, jazz, rock, country, gospel and pop artists and even sampled hundreds of times in rap and hip hop. That’s the definition of a great song.
Bill was his own man from start to finish, fiercely independent and uncompromising. He received much deserved fame and recognition, but steadfastly refused to be packaged and sold in ways he didn’t believe in, probably sometimes to his financial detriment. I attended the ceremony when he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s first class in 2007. His words of acceptance were profound and inspiring. He told of listening to soul, blues and gospel music at home in Slab Fork and then going across the tracks to friends’ homes where he heard country music from singers such as fellow inductee, Little Jimmy Dickens. It all became part of his unique and unmistakable sound.
Bill became an active inspiration and driving force in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and more than once expressed his gratitude to its founder, Michael Lipton, for putting him back in touch with his home state. Michael invited me to join him as Bill’s guest when Bill was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. We sat beside some of Bill’s old friends from Slab Fork. The show was a marathon that lasted over six hours and Bill was second to last, right before Ringo Starr was inducted by Paul McCartney. Even in that company, Bill’s remarks were the highlight. He was the rare talent who knew his worth but retained true humility. He was inducted by Stevie Wonder. John Legend led his musical tribute. I’ll never forget Bill recognizing all the night’s other honorees and then slyly adding. “But I’m the only one being inducted by a Wonder and a Legend.”
As I said, to me Bill is a symbol of American music. More importantly, he’s a symbol of what America is at its best: A blend of strong flavors that, with the right cook, makes a masterpiece . He’s also a symbol of West Virginia. He grew up in tough times and overcame many obstacles, from poverty to stuttering. He joined the service and later got a factory job. He began writing songs later than most successful writers and although he believed strongly in himself, he never thought he would be the one to make them famous. Booker T. Jones told me that when Bill came into the recording session that became his first album, he thought someone else was going to be the artist. Unassuming but resolute, fame and fortune were not Bill’s gods. These are characteristics that I associate with West Virginians
After only eight years, Bill walked away from a performance career that most artists would kill for. He’d had enough of the indignities of a music business that he never really wanted to become a part of. He wasn’t driven by the unbridled ego, greed and ambition that seems ever present in today’s world, in and out of music. He quit performing, but his songs never retired and will be in demand as long as good taste survives.
I wish everyone, and especially every child in West Virginia could have met Bill Withers. In a few words, his pithy point of view could cut to the heart of what is important and put you in your place while never exalting himself. His main message to children was simple: “…take the limits off of yourself – and realize that there’s no magic that somebody else has in the world that you don’t.”