A new documentary explores what happened to Bill Withers when he stepped off the stage.
A new documentary explores what happened to Bill Withers when he stepped off the stage. Andrew Zuckerman
Bill Withers was working as an airline mechanic, installing toilets on 747s, when his song "Ain't No Sunshine" was released. It was the first in a string of simple, soulful hits, which also included "Lean on Me," "Lovely Day" and "Just the Two of Us." Though his music is still heard everywhere, Withers himself retreated to a private life more than two decades ago. A new documentary explores what happened to the hit maker when he stepped off the stage. Damani Baker and Alex Vlack spent eight years making the film, which shares a title with one of Withers' albums: Still Bill. All Things Considered host Michele Norris recently sat down with Baker and Vlack to ask what drew them to the project.
"You just have to listen to his music to know why Bill Withers," Vlack says. "We had spent so much time with his music, so much time with his hits, as well as his whole catalog. ... You really start loving this man."
The DVD is a portrait of a man who is part performer, part philosopher. In an interview for the film, Withers describes the wisdom that he once shared with his kids.
"One of the things I always tell my kids is that it's OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you're gonna have to pass through all right," Withers says. "When you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you're gonna go."
According to Baker, Withers is talking both about his kids and about himself.
"He started in the business very late in life," Baker says. "He had this life before becoming a soul icon. On his way to wonderful, he didn't know what that was yet."
The Fame Game
Once Withers became a soul icon, he was faced with the reality of what he called the "fame game." His celebrity status came at a great cost.
"I became very interested [in the question], can I still stay in this business and be effective and make a living, and not have to play this fame game? I wasn't any good at it. The fame game was kickin' my ass," Withers says in the film.
For Withers, music needed to be genuine, and so when he was asked to lip-sync for audiences, he became visibly disgruntled while onstage.
"For him, he likes connecting with people," Vlack says. "If he's gonna play music, he wants to play it and enjoy it, and he's fine if there's only 10 people listening to it, as long as it's genuine."
The film follows Withers to his home in the lush town of Slab Fork, W.Va., where he and his daughter, Kori, sit down for an impromptu duet. It was the first time that Vlack and Baker had heard Withers sing after two years of working with him.
"The two of them have the most intimate moment, completely out of the blue," Baker says.
The staying power of Withers' music is a testament to its repeatable simplicity.
"They're very good, simple pieces of music," Baker says. "And whatever you're going through in that moment in your own life, all of a sudden you have this Bill Withers soundtrack that's attached to love, relationships, loss ... it's the soundtrack to so many pieces of who we are."