Here’s to Bill Withers: working-class poet, artist and intellectual

The “African-American Everyman”

“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” musician and band leader Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing Black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”

It wasn’t too long ago when I was talking to my husband about Bill Withers. I think the context might have been this excruciatingly painful and ignorant idea, from the 2016 election, that the Midwest is full of working class voters who support Trump.

The rather glaring omission in that quite popular concept are Black working class voters. Politicians and pundits across the right-left spectrum use “working class” as a shorthand for white, male workers. It was “Joe the Plummer” when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008.

Actually, I think Withers came up because we were talking about what constitutes working-class culture and its multi-racial, multi-ethnic influence. I brought up the songwriter-poet and said, “He’s from West Virginia, and he said ‘Lean On Me’ came from his experience growing up in a small coal-mining town,” arguing that Black working class experience is often overlooked as authentically working class.

Toward the end of the conversation, I asked my husband, “Is Bill Withers dead?” I googled and found he wasn’t then.

But now he is.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who prematurely put Mr. Withers in the grave.

In the 2015 Rolling Stone article, “The Soul Man Who Walked Away,” Andy Greene interviewed Withers and wrote:

“Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. ‘Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,’ he says with a hearty chuckle. ‘A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’”

Understated. Low-key. Whatever it was, Withers, like so many billions of unsung workers, create the world’s wealth — in value, profit, culture, knowledge, you name it. People are born to create. Withers, through all his hills and valleys, embodied this.

Meanwhile, artists who had covered his songs read like a who’s who of pop music: Sting, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones, among others. Withers’ work has been heard in more than 50 films and television shows, a dozen commercials and as samples in countless rap tunes. In addition to the iconic “Lean On Me,” his hits include “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Born July 4, 1938, in Slab Folk, W.Va., Withers was the youngest of six children. His father died when he was a child and he was raised by his mother and grandmother. After a nine-year stint in the Navy, Withers moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career in 1967. He recorded demos at night while working production at the Boeing aircraft company.

Withers wrote “Lean on Me” based on his experiences growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town. Times were hard and when neighbors needed something beyond their means, the rest of the community would chip in and help, he said. Withers said he came up with the chord progression while noodling around on his new Wurlitzer electric piano and the sound of the chords reminded him of the hymns that he heard at church while he was growing up.

With working-class modesty, he used to insist there’s nothing too special about him. Everyone likes to sing, he said, everyone likes music and he can’t really play guitar or piano.

“I just was able to plunk around with them enough to write some songs,” he said.

“Still Bill” documents Withers’ life and is playing on Amazon Prime.

Withers was a working-class poet, artist and intellectual, or as Questlove said he was the “African American Everyman.” He made our lives richer. RIP to the Poet Laureate of Soul. Condolences to his family and friends.

Writers interpret the world in various ways, the point is to change it.

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