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Bill Withers, ‘Lean On Me’ soul icon, dies at 81

The enigmatic singer, who largely withdrew from the music industry in the ’80s, was revered by musicians and presidents.
This April 18, 2015 file photo shows singer-songwriter Bill Withers speaking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland. Withers, who wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine," died in Los Angeles from heart complications on Monday, March 30, 2020. He was 81.
This April 18, 2015 file photo shows singer-songwriter Bill Withers speaking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland. Withers, who wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine," died in Los Angeles from heart complications on Monday, March 30, 2020. He was 81. [ MARK DUNCAN | AP ]
Published Apr. 3, 2020

Bill Withers, the ’70s soul icon famed for hits like Lean On Me and Ain’t No Sunshine, has died at 81.

The singer’s family told the Associated Press he died from heart complications on March 30.

The West Virginia native kicked around Los Angeles for a few years between a stint in the Navy and his breakthrough debut album, Just As I Am, which featured the smoky, roots-and-blues-infused Grandma’s Hands and Ain’t No Sunshine. The latter received a Grammy, cementing Withers as a rising R&B star like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield.

Just a couple of years later, Lean On Me sent him into a new stratosphere. The song about friendship in tough times has become a new American standard; Withers performed it at the inaugurations of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Withers wrote more iconic songs infusing his signature smoothness with elements of funk, including Lovely Day, Use Me and Just the Two of Us. His 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall is considered one of the era’s defining soul documents.

“Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen," the Roots’ Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015.

Still, Withers rarely recorded or performed since the ’80s. Following his final album, 1985′s Watching You Watching Me, he quit the business amid label and industry turmoil.

Younger artists sought him out and encouraged him to come back, but he rarely emerged from his reclusive retirement. He rarely did (although he contributed to albums by other artists, including Jimmy Buffett), but his songs were famously sampled in other hits, including Blackstreet’s No Diggity (Grandma’s Hands) and Will Smith’s version of Just the Two of Us.

Withers was eventually inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But nothing could lure him back to the music industry — not new music or a lucrative comeback tour or anything.

“What else do I need to buy?” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, man, who treats me like gold. I don’t deserve her. My wife dotes on me. I’m very pleased with my life how it is. This business came to me in my 30s. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”