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'Still Bill': Documenting A Soul Icon

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'Still Bill': Documenting A Soul Icon

'Still Bill': Documenting A Soul Icon

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Sunshine")

Mr. BILL WITHERS (Singer): (Singing) Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. It's not warm when she's away.

NORRIS: 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: "Lean on Me," "Lovely Day," "Just the Two of Us."

Though his music is still heard everywhere, Withers himself retreated to a very 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 on the project. The film shares a title with one of Withers' albums: "Still Bill."

I asked them what drew them to Bill Withers. Here's Alex first.

Mr. ALEX VLACK (Filmmaker, "Still Bill"): You just have to listen to his music to know why Bill Withers. You know, we had spent so much time with his music, so much time with his hits, as well as his whole catalog, which has all of these incredible songs and incredible lyrics, and you really start loving this man. And you realize actually in that first conversation that this is the guy who wrote these songs because he still speaks this way. You know, he...

NORRIS: The one thing I'm thinking about when, in the interview, where he's very wise. He's almost like a philosopher, and he's talking about the wisdom that he gives his kids.

(Soundbite of film, "Still Bill")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WITHERS: One of the things I always tell my kids is, you know, it's okay to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you're going to have to pass through all right, and 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 going to go.

NORRIS: Was he talking about his kids or was he talking about himself there?

Mr. DAMANI BAKER (Filmmaker, "Still Bill"): Both, absolutely. You know, he started in the business very late in life. He was a man who had lived in West Virginia, moved and joined the Navy. He had this life before becoming a soul icon. And so on his way to wonderful, for him, I think, wonderful, he didn't know what that was yet, but he was okay with everything he had accomplished up to that point.

NORRIS: Wonderful can actually be more than some people can handle, and he suggests that also, that there was quite a cost.

(Soundbite of film, "Still Bill")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WITHERS: I became very interested: 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Just the Two of Us")

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) I see the crystal raindrops fall and the beauty of it all is when the sun comes shining through to make those rainbows in my mind, when I think of you sometime and I want to spend some time with you, just the two of us.

NORRIS: Now, his voice sounds wonderful, but the expression on his face looks like he is someplace else in his mind. What's going on there?

Mr. VLACK: Well, first of all, he was lip-synching, and he hated doing that. For him, he likes connecting with people, and he - if he's gonna play music, he wants to play it and enjoy it, and he's fine if there's only 10 people in the room listening to it, as long as it's genuine. So if someone's told him, now, you've got to do this, just go out there and lip-synch, he's going to be annoyed.

NORRIS: When he was at the height of his fame, he would talk about Slab Fork, West Virginia, where he came from, but he made it clear that it was someplace that he did not intend to go back to. Yet, you got him to go back and it seemed like that was the key to really understanding Bill Withers the man.

Mr. VLACK: Yeah, I mean, I would be absolutely terrified of saying that we got him to do anything.

NORRIS: Oh, okay. How'd you get him to go, then?

Mr. VLACK: We basically told him: We're going. He'd been back there a couple of times for some high school reunions, but he said: Go ahead, have a good time. It doesn't sound fun to me. Just don't visit - what'd he say?

Mr. BAKER: No cemeteries.

Mr. VLACK: No family and no cemeteries. In other words, don't go digging up any graves and don't visit, you know, any sisters or cousins or anybody. And then a few days before we left, he said, you know, I think I'll come with you. And the whole thing, like a lot of the film, became just, let's just follow him again.

(Soundbite of song, "Grandma's Hands")

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) Grandma's hands.

Mr. BAKER: The West Virginia shoots are particular green and vibrant and lush, and if you ever wanted to know how Bill wrote these songs, you just kind of go back and see the faces in the community that kind of contributed to who he is.

NORRIS: And the song "Grandma's Hands," it makes much more sense when you see him, you know, boy don't you run too fast.

(Soundbite of song, "Grandma's Hands")

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) Billy, don't you run so fast, might fall on a piece of glass, might be snakes there in that grass, grandma's hands.

NORRIS: He overcame a real stuttering problem. He actually goes back, in one of the most touching moments of the film, he goes back and speaks to a group of students who stutter. And he's talking about his own life and how people would get in his face and say, boy, just spit it out.

And he - you see really the grace of Bill Withers in that moment because he's telling children: You have to be kinder to people than they are to you.

(Soundbite of film, "Still Bill")

Mr. WITHERS: We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter. Having had people not understand me a lot maybe helped me wait a little beat to where I can extend something that hasn't been given to me, and I think that makes you a much bigger person.

Mr. BAKER: Well, he changes the language so brilliantly. It becomes a gift, in a way.

Mr. VLACK: I think all of us in the room were just floored. And I think the children really walked away proud and just felt blessed that this moment happened.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

NORRIS: The scene with his daughter, where are they?

Mr. BAKER: That's actually in West Virginia.

NORRIS: Oh, okay.

Mr. BAKER: This very, kind of, random golf course lounge. He was giving us a tour of a new development, and we walked into a room with a piano, and we both kind of look at it, and Alex and I look at each other, and hey, Bill, there's a piano. And he goes: Oh, oh, let's see what's up with that. And he walks over. Corey, his daughter follows him.

(Soundbite of film, "Still Bill")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) You've always been there for me when I needed a friend.

Mr. BAKER That's the first time we'd actually heard Bill sing.

Mr. VLACK: We'd been with him for two years.

Mr. BAKER: For two years.

Mr. VLACK: We hadn't heard him sing.

Mr. BAKER: Ever. And I don't think we'd heard Corey sing live, as well, and the two of them have the most intimate moment, completely out of the blue.

(Soundbite of film, "Still Bill")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WITHERS: Come on, Corey, sing that bridge.

Ms. COREY WITHERS: (Singing) Any time, any time, any time of the night, I will be just a phone call away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Why do you think his music has such staying power?

Mr. BAKER: I mean, they're just good. They're very good, simple pieces of music. 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 kind of attached to love, relationships, loss. It's just like the soundtrack of so many pieces of who we are.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Alex Vlack, Damani Baker, thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you.

Mr. VLACK: Thank you.

NORRIS: Their film is "Still Bill." For information on how to get a DVD of the film and host your own screening, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of song, "Lovely Day")

Mr. WITHERS: (Singing) Lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day. A lovely day, lovely day, lovely day, lovely day.

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