10 essential Bill Withers' songs
"Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean On Me," "Lovely Day," and more.
Bill Withers was a musical titan — a once-in-a-generation songwriter whose expressive vocals and universal lyrics influenced countless artists. Though the "Lean on Me" singer, who passed away on Friday at the age of 81 from heart complications, walked away from music midway through the 1980s, his legacy still looms large (you can learn more about it in the excellent 2009 documentary Still Bill, which is streaming on iTunes and Amazon). Ahead, we look back at 10 of his most memorable songs.
"Lean on Me" (1972)
Withers’ biggest hit (and lone No. 1 single) may have been inspired by the loneliness he felt following a cross-country move from his rural childhood home in West Virginia to the starry, big-city world of Los Angeles, but its message stretches far beyond that. "Lean On Me" is a gospel-tinged ode to selflessness and hope, to dependency and love for your fellow neighbor. It's also the rare song — thanks to its placement in movies, TV shows, and commercials, not to mention an endless amount of covers, including that funky-fresh Club Nouveau version — to achieve total ubiquity, one even your most head-in-the-sand uncle knows the words and melody to. It's a hard one to forget. From the sanguine major-chord progression to Withers' soulful opening hums, "Lean on Me" is one of contemporary music's most vital tracks. —Alex Suskind
“Just the Two of Us” (1981)
While many people naturally think of this winsome ballad as a Withers song since his voice rides atop its mellifluous groove, it is technically a Grover Washington, Jr. joint. The inimitably smooth jazz saxophonist wisely enlisted his friend for this track off his 1980 album Winelight album. “Just the Two of Us” took the Best R&B song Grammy in 1981 and serves as the inspiration for Will Smith’s song of the same name. —Sarah Rodman
“Who is He (And What is He to You)” (1972)
Even if the rest of the song was nothing special — which it very much is from its pointed acoustic groove to the sleekly stealthy strings — it would be a hall of fame contender for this verse alone: “Now when I add the sum of you and me/I get confused when I keep coming up with three/You're too much for one man/But not enough for two, dadgumit/Who is he and what is he to you.” Both hilarious and straight fire. Among the memorable covers is a slithery slow burn version by Me’Shell Ndegeocello. —SR
“Use Me” (1972)
The grease and funk of this head-nodding jam manages to locate a very specific intersection of something that feels good but is not good for you and the irresistible temptation towards the latter. There is humor here sure, but real pathos and yearning. One of his most covered tracks the spectrum of iterations is truly wild from Liza Minnelli to a Mick Jagger-Lenny Kravitz duet. —SR
"Lovely Day" (1977)
A hip-shaking bass riff, sunshine-bright strings, that 18-second-long dayyyyyyyy at the end. Few songs capture the soul-cleansing feeling of falling love in such simple terms as Withers' 1972 classic:“When the day that lies ahead of me/Seems impossible to face/When someone else instead of me/Always seems to know the way/Then I look at you/And the world's alright with me.” Co-written with ‘70s ballader Skip Scarborough, the single — like many of Withers’ hits — found a second life in films and covers (like this extremely weird Luther Vandross and Busta Rhymes take from 2003) —AS
"Ain’t No Sunshine" (1971)
This mournful 1977 acoustic single was inspired by the toxic relationship between Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon's co-dependent (and alcoholic) characters in the 1962 Blake Edwards-helmed Days of Wine and Roses. It's also become a cross-generational go-to breakup anthem for the recently dumped. The song tracks the loneliness one feels when you're missing someone you love — even if they're absolutely no good for you in the first place. “And this house just ain't no home/Anytime she goes away," croons Withers over gently plucked guitar strings. —AS
“Grandma’s Hands” (1971)
The recorded version of this paean to Withers’ grandmother, who sounded very special indeed, is such an inventive way into a remembrance of a loved one. The Live From Carnegie Hall version is the one to start with since it includes an equal parts uproarious and heartfelt intro that ends with Withers declaring sweetly “I loved that old lady.” This song went even further thanks to multiple covers including memorable versions by Merry Clayton and Gil Scott-Heron and its use as a foundational sample for Blackstreet’s New Jack rallying cry “No Diggity.” —SR
Nearly 14 minutes, and it’s still not hardly enough; that’s how shang-a-lang good and get-down the final cut from his iconic 1972 Live At Carnegie Hall release is. Withers’ vivid images of a child growing up in Harlem—"Cold baloney and I'm home by myself/Well I'm five years old and it sure is cold/Mama's out cookin' steak for someone else”—offer up a searing portrait of race and class disparities in America, then wrap them in the sickest slow-burn funk rollout since Marvin Gaye’s “ Makes Me Wanna Holler.” —LG
"Kissing My Love"
The wah-wah funk of that ‘70s slap bass, Withers’ syrup-slathered mahogany of a vocal, and about a million reasons to make out with someone. Who could even resist, once you start laying down lines like “When I'm kissing my love/I close my eyes and see a pretty city/With a million flowers babe”? (Not Dr. Dre, the Jungle Brothers, Eric B. & Rakim, or J. Cole, all of whom sampled it over the years). —LG
"I Can’t Write Left-Handed" (1973)
Once again, Withers finds an ingenious and staggeringly soulful way to put sugar on the bitter pill of politics. His narrative of a young soldier in Vietnam pleading with someone who still has all their limbs intact to write a letter to his mother is both a stone-cold indictment of the traumas of war and somehow, still, a slow jam you can (nearly) dance to. —Leah Greenblatt