Bill Withers occupied his own distinct domain within the landscape of soul music. Wielding a voice like maple syrup, thick and sweet, he moaned his darkest songs from a place of raw, bluesy introspection. And every lane he cruised down felt uniquely his: One of his funkiest cuts, 1972’s “Use Me,” builds on a sound rarely utilized in the genre — a folky acoustic strum — and flaunts a deceptively complex lyric about the magnetism of a toxic romance.
The singer-songwriter died in Los Angeles on March 30 of heart complications, per a widely cited announcement from his family. He was 81.
His most inspirational tunes radiate hope with every chord, often drawing on the melting pot of influences from his early life in West Virginia. “We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhood,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I heard guys playing country music, and in church I heard gospel. There was music everywhere.”
The Withers catalog isn’t quite as vast as his influence: only eight studio albums and one live LP. But his presence has lingered well beyond the mid-’80s, when he left the industry amid frustrations with record executives. R&B group Club Nouveau revived “Lean on Me” with their Grammy-winning 1986 cover; new-jack-swing practitioners Blackstreet sampled his staple “Grandma’s Hands” for their 1996 hit “No Diggity”; and Withers entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, following an introduction from Stevie Wonder.
In tribute to a master, here are five canonical classics from the Withers songbook.
This minor-key, painfully short anthem lays bare the pain of loneliness, staring the emotion directly in the eyes. But Withers makes that depression intoxicating, singing one of his most tender vocals over a sizzling drum groove from Al Jackson Jr. and a Booker T. Jones string arrangement that hovers like a storm cloud. The most brilliant maneuver arrives on the third verse, as the entire band drops out, leaving only the drums and Withers’ hypnotic, mantra-like repetition of the phrase “I know.” Decades later, the boldness of that choice is enough to stop you in your tracks.
Some of the most essential funk is gloriously overstuffed, but Withers uses a bare-essentials approach on this 1972 hit. There’s an acoustic guitar strumming seventh chords, a bass guitar rumbling up into harmonics, a drum groove with a nimble rim-click pattern, a brief handclap cameo and the tastiest Clavinet ever laid to tape. Withers navigates this tale of damaged love with a laidback tone, occasionally scurrying up to a higher range for dramatic effect. And, just like on “Sunshine,” he shows us the power of dynamics — cutting everything but the drums on the chorus as he reveals just how good it feels getting used.
A warm tangle of Wurlitzer and acoustic piano — along with a crucial dash of humming — opens “Lean on Me” in gospel territory. But when the singer beckons, “Just call on me, brother,” the track sharply shifts into a lightly funky groove with high bass slides and claps. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, that simple sentiment of friendship could have felt cloying, but Withers was a master of magnifying an emotion without dulling its essence. The strings stay gentle; the vocal never veers into fanciful melisma; the temptation for a blown-out crescendo is avoided. Who else but Withers could have made this song work?
Withers’ music grew breezier — and less original — by the late ’70s, but there’s no denying the instant-sunshine charm of “Lovely Day.” The groovy hit is a collaboration with Skip Scarborough, who previously helped craft a handful of Earth, Wind & Fire tracks (and that suave atmosphere shimmers through the entire song). Over a percolating bassline, soft strings and plush brass, Withers displays an elite level of vocal command, from his sustained chorus notes on the word “day” to the bluesy spin he adds to the phrase “alright with me” at the 2:40 mark. What monster can listen to this without smiling?