It seems like Bill Withers has been in my ear my entire life.
Growing up in a household where ‘70s soul was the soundtrack of our lives, he was right up there with Marvin, Stevie, Diana, Chaka, Teddy P. and other R&B legends — the artists who made me fall in love with music while I was scratching up my dad’s vinyl.
Songs such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me” and the funkalicious “Use Me” made him feel like that cool uncle growing up — the one who was a reassuring presence at backyard barbecues and family reunions.
He was the sunshine.
But even before I found out that his sun had set — it was announced on Friday that Mr. Withers had died on Monday from heart complications at 81 — Uncle Bill was heavy on my mind recently.
I was watching “Girls Trip” for the first time to try and escape from the madness in our midst, and there is a scene when Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah and Regina Hall arrive in New Orleans for the Essence Festival to the sound of NOLA brass band the Soul Rebels playing “Lovely Day.” And it is pure joy.
At that moment, I forgot all about the coronavirus, and I was that little kid who just knew it was gonna be a lovely day — pandemic or not.
“Lovely Day” stayed with me in the days after, and I had to take it back to Withers’ 1977 original. As I was struggling to make sense of the world we live in right now, I put that classic — one of the all-time-great songs — on repeat, and it gave me sweet comfort.
But whereas contemporaries such as Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were almost otherworldly talents, there was something relatable and unassuming about Withers, with his chill, conversational vocals. He was the genius next door.
Even when he got political, as on his great Vietnam War protest song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,’ he was always approachable.
I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Withers for Essence in 2015 — the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Long before then, he had stopped performing, and when I asked him if he missed it, he responded matter-of-factly: “If I missed it, I’d try to find a way to do it.”
No-nonsense all the way.
Still, he was proud of “the fact that my songs outlived my activity.” Now that is an understatement. His songs will live beyond all of us.
Thank you for letting us lean on you, Uncle Bill.
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