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A Conversation With Bill Withers

bill

Questions by Jake Stump
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

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One of the most soulful and bluesy voices in popular music of the last century came from West Virginia. Bill Withers, a three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Rock Hall of Fame inductee, is the product of a small, coal mining town called Slab Fork, his birthplace in 1938. His gritty upbringing shaped him into an iconic music legend whose songs — “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day” — remain household hits to this day. In May, Withers, now 79, returned to his native state to accept an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University. While here, he peppered the Class of 2017 with words of wisdom and spent a few moments with WVU Magazine to talk about his journey.

How challenging was it growing up with a stutter? Obviously you found a way to conquer it.

I stuttered until I was 30. The most difficult thing is forgiving people for not understanding and their ignorance. The thing is, they always thought I was stupid, but I knew they were. I was on an aircraft carrier [in the Navy] once and in charge of the repair crew. We collided with a refueling ship, and I was unable to tell anyone the instructions. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I stuttered because I had an elevated opinion of other people and a very low opinion of myself. So I started working on that balance. It worked for me — manipulating that thought pattern.

How did you end up singing and songwriting?  

If that’s what you are [a singer], that’s what you are. It’s when you act on it that makes a difference. I always knew since I was a little boy that I could sing. It’s like a person who can run really fast. Whether they play a sport or not, it’s an innate thing. 

What were your influences, musically? 

If you grew up in West Virginia, you heard what was on the radio, which was mostly country music. Then you heard what came out of people’s houses, which were gospel, blues and Frank Sinatra. So it was an amalgamation of stuff, a hybrid of influences. Everything influences you. One time I was in Oakland in the Navy and Lou Rawls was working there. One night he came in late and the bartender was pacing back and forth and said, “I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t show up on time.” I thought, “Wait a minute. You can make two grand doing that?” That influenced me. 

How prevalent was the issue of race throughout your career? 

My mother bought a house across the railroad tracks. Two black families lived on that side. I got a good look at the black side and the white side and used to laugh because they didn’t know how similar they were. First of all, they all worked in coal mines. 

It’s always been a complex thing with me. I’ve been poor and black, middle class and black, and wealthy and black. I’m always aware I’m black. But it’s like stuttering. I was never determined to let that define me.

The bottom line is you have to come up with your own individual survival mechanism. As a kid, we couldn’t go in swimming pools. So we learned to swim in the creek. In the ’50s, I had to drive around in the middle of the night in Alabama. It’s a weird feeling, but you gotta go.

Tomorrow’s coming. And you got to figure out a way to do tomorrow.

I remember living in Beverly Hills when it was common for someone to come up to the gate and ask, “Is the owner home?” You have fun with that. I’d say, ‘He’ll be here tomorrow.” Or tell them to kiss my a**.

A lot of people become angry and self-destructive. There’s not a moment that I walk around and I’m not aware that I’m black. So I make adjustments. It doesn’t dictate everything to me. You learn how to make your life work. That’s it.

Was there a single moment when you thought to yourself, “I’ve made it?”

It’s not that it hits you that you had some success. The thing is, you should be surprised if you didn’t. Nobody tries to do something, like sports or music, if they don’t think they can do it.

After I made my first record, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was released as a B-side to “Harlem.” But disc jockeys turned it over and played “Ain’t No Sunshine” instead and it became a huge hit. There’s a lot of happenstance. But you don’t wander into this. You have to be there on purpose.

You held onto your day job for a while even after “Ain’t No Sunshine” hit it big. [At the time, Withers worked as an aircraft assembler. The cover of his debut album “Just as I am” shows him at his job holding his lunch pail.]

Just in case. I thought the music business was a fickle industry. I was in my 30s. A lot of people get one hit and they go away. To go there, stay there and have people remember you 40 years later, that’s intense. The odds ain’t too good.

I used to go on tour with Donny Hathaway, a great artist. Every night before we’d go on stage, he said, “You better bring it tonight brother because I’m coming.” This business is a “bring it” situation. People are always asking what inspires you when you’re performing or are like, “Were you thinking about your grandmother?” Nah, you just gotta want some of this.

You hear a lot of people saying, “Well, you gotta listen to my niece” or “I know a guy that’s got a nice voice.” So what? This is a worldwide competition. It’s not your local, high school talent show. If you want a break, you make a break. You go get it. 

Your music has been heard regularly on movies, TV shows and commercials through the years. What goes through your mind every time you hear one of your songs in pop culture?

It’s flattering. It’s always nice when somebody lets you know that you did OK.   But you can’t be on both the doing and receiving side. You can’t be your own audience. Once it’s done, you move on.

But people finally got me. When I was out there, it was contemporary and no one made that much of a fuss over it. I wasn’t socialized as a musician. I learned to live another way. I learned to live as a sailor, an aircraft mechanic, a factory worker, all those things had their own elements of pleasure.

With my music, it was a gradual acceptance over time. People are being nicer to me now than they ever were [laughter]. I joked with my daughter the other day that this must be my farewell tour. I have people like Justin Timberlake and John Mayer inviting me to concerts. They treat me very nice. I’m like this old guy who didn’t die.