Bill Withers Can Still Bite "I wasn't socialized as a musician. It wasn't the only way I knew how to live," says the celebrated songwriter. Withers came to music late and left early, but his brief career is still making waves.
NPR logo

Bill Withers Can Still Bite

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/444482730/444912675" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bill Withers Can Still Bite

Bill Withers Can Still Bite

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/444482730/444912675" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have two things you ought to know about our next guest. The first is that he is a rock 'n' roll Hall of Famer. The other is that he tends to be a little media shy.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Bill Withers, are you there?

BILL WITHERS: Depends on who's asking.

GREENE: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: That's our own David Greene, luring out the man who wrote this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON ME")

WITHERS: (Singing) Sometimes, in our lives, we all have pain.

GREENE: In his brief career, Bill Withers wrote some indelible hits. But after quitting the music business in the mid-'80s, Withers has been so low-key, most people wouldn't recognize him if he sat down next to them. In fact, that happened once at a restaurant in LA.

WITHERS: Yeah, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles up on Pico, and these ladies looked like they had just come from church or something, and they were talking about this Bill Withers song. So I was going to have some fun with them. I said, I'm Bill Withers, and this lady said, you ain't no Bill Withers. You too light-skinned to be Bill Withers.

GREENE: Did you convince them that you were Bill Withers?

WITHERS: Even after I showed them my driver's license, they weren't buying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON ME")

WITHERS: (Singing) Lean on me when you're not strong.

GREENE: Well, some think Bill Withers should be better known. And tonight, he will be honored in a tribute concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. The artists will play the songs Withers recorded at that very place 43 years ago, including, of course, "Lean On Me." It's a song Withers says is about his friends and neighbors as a child.

WITHERS: I was born in a place called Slab Fork, W.Va., which was really a coal-mining camp.

GREENE: So small town where everybody worked for the mines, basically.

WITHERS: It wasn't a town. It was more like a camp. Remember the song, "16 Tons"?

GREENE: Yeah.

WITHERS: That pretty much summed it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIXTEEN TONS")

TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD: (Singing) You load 16 tons. What do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store.

WITHERS: All the houses were owned by the coal company. We had a company store where you could buy everything from toothpaste to Tampax.

GREENE: Wow, so that was the life of Bill Withers growing up.

WITHERS: No.

GREENE: OK (laughter).

WITHERS: No, that's where I was born.

GREENE: OK, but he did grow up in another coal town just 12 miles away.

WITHERS: I was the first man in my family not to work in a coal mine. My social idol was my older brother. He got hurt in the coal mines. He got crushed by a coal cart, so he wasn't able to work in there anymore. He was the happiest mailman I've ever seen in my life. I always wanted to be as happy as he was.

GREENE: And have you gotten there?

WITHERS: No, I'll never get there. I've come to the conclusion that in order to be unequivocally happy, you have to have some blind spots.

GREENE: You're saying if you feel truly happy, you're not seeing the reality of the world around you?

WITHERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T WRITE LEFT-HANDED")

WITHERS: We recorded this song on October the 6. Since then, the war has been declared over. If you're like me, you'll remember it like anybody remembers any war - one big drag.

GREENE: You have a song called "Can't Write Left-Handed." And I feel like it may have come from you noticing the kind of thing we're talking about.

WITHERS: Well, I'm from the generation - I was in the Navy nine years. So at a certain point, a lot of my friends got sent to be Vietnam. So it occurred to me that if a guy got his right arm blown off, he would have to learn to write left-handed. Just ruminating, that phrase crossed my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T WRITE LEFT-HANDED")

WITHERS: (Singing) I can't write left-handed. Would you please write a letter, write a letter to my mother? Tell her to tell, tell her to tell, tell her to tell my family lawyer trying to get, trying to get a deferment for my younger brother.

GREENE: After the Navy, Bill Withers worked on factory assembly lines, but he also started performing. When he got his record deal, the label gave him the chance to record his music with some pretty big stars including Booker T. Jones and also members of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

WITHERS: Graham Nash came and sat in front of me. And I was, you know, a little frustrated, and he said, you don't know how good you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO SUNSHINE")

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

GREENE: Withers's first album was led by this song. The so-called artist and repertoire folks - the people promoting him - didn't see it as a big winner.

WITHERS: "Ain't No Sunshine" was the B side. And the disc jockeys, God bless them, turned it over, and that's how I got started.

GREENE: It was a B side, meaning it was one of the lesser songs not expected to do as well.

WITHERS: Well, I call A&R antagonistic and redundant.

GREENE: (Laughter).

WITHERS: And that's why because they make those genius decisions like that, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO SUNSHINE")

WITHERS: (Singing) Ain't no sunshine when she's gone. And this house just ain't no home anytime she goes away.

GREENE: Bill Withers always did things his way, which did lead to disputes with his record labels. And finally after less than 15 years in the business, he just walked away.

It sounds like you're pretty happy generally being kind of under the radar.

WITHERS: Yeah, well, you know, I wasn't socialized as a musician. It wasn't the only way I knew how to live. You figure I was in my 30s when I started doing this. Now, most people that do this, they start practicing in their basement when they're 6 years old. I just happened to do some other things, I mean, I built a lot of stuff.

GREENE: Did you build the studio in your house?

WITHERS: Yeah.

GREENE: Are you recording things there that you've never released and we might hear at some point or might not hear?

WITHERS: I probably got a couple of things laying around. It's like just because your dog doesn't bite your mailman, it doesn't mean he ain't still a dog, you know? He can still bite you.

GREENE: (Laughter) You can still bite is what you're telling me.

WITHERS: Yeah, you better believe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVELY DAY")

WITHERS: (Singing) When I wake up in the morning, love.

GREENE: You know, your music certainly lives on in so many covers, film soundtracks, I mean, rap samples. Does that make you happy?

WITHERS: You think about what you just asked me (laughter). By what scenario would that make me unhappy?

GREENE: That's fair.

WITHERS: (Laughter) No, no.

GREENE: I don't know. You said you're a unique guy. But maybe (laughter) the answer would be no.

WITHERS: No, no, no, you think about that question you just asked me (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVELY DAY")

WITHERS: (Singing) A lovely day.

GREENE: Bill Withers, it's really been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much.

WITHERS: And it's been fun messing with you here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVELY DAY")

WITHERS: (Singing) Lovely day.

INSKEEP: David Greene talking with Bill Withers who will be honored with a tribute concert this evening at Carnegie Hall.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.