It was 2008, I was living within walking distance of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. When I saw they’d organized a tribute concert to Bill Withers, I marked it on my calendar, and I made damn sure I was not going to miss it.
For as long as I can remember, hell, for as long as I’ve been alive, Soul music has always spoken to me, and no one’s music matched my soul more than Bill Withers. “Lean on Me” was a song we’d sing as pre-school kids, arms around each others’ necks, and when the Club Nouveau cover came out, it was my favorite dance circle at all my aunts’, uncles’, and elder cousins’ weddings. I remember receiving a compilation CD from BMG while in high school, and on the same day I quickly transferred my favorite of Withers’ tracks to a Maxell XLII turning on “Grandma’s Hands,” subsequently losing my mind as I tapped the steering wheel of my Jeep whipping together a verse from Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” Withers’ music came to define seminal moments in my life. Songs like “Can We Pretend” would be the salve to a big fight; “Kissing My Love” is the epitome of wildly bouncing around in the beginnings of love; you can hear the past coming in and taking over for the present and any possibility of a future in “Let Me in Your Life;” and then there’s the pure ecstasy of the 26 “I knows” in “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It was that same Maxell tape, strolling around in suburban St. Louis, with wet swim trunks on shearling seat covers, that my friends and I counted to 26 for the first time; and then there’s “Lovely Day.” For a period of time, I tried to become a runner. I’d run in the mornings before work. There was a five mile loop (the perimeter of — of all places, Prospect Park), that I could effectively finish in just about an hour. “Lovely Day” was always the first track I would listen to on a small, green, iPod Shuffle clipped to my shorts.
What I always most-admired about Bill Withers was his streak of selflessness and reluctance. A late bloomer with a considerably brief career (all of 15 years), Withers was loath to quit his his job at Weber Aircraft, even after he got signed to Sussex Records in 1970. I relate to his drive to create uncompromising, passionate work, to continue to maintain a steady income for his family, to be a man for others in the most direct ways he can imagine. That streak of selflessness and reluctance carried till his death.
His reluctance to perform, particularly as he grew older, was perfectly summed up by the man himself, in this Rolling Stone interview anticipating his 2015 induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame [ed. note, Bill Withers, noted Big Bang Theory and Judge Judy fan].
“I don’t want to be one of those old guys that sounds like a gerbil trying to give birth to a hippopotamus,” he said.
Knowing this, as I did, even at 27, I realized that the show BRIC was putting on in collaboration with famed music producer Hal Willner in Prospect Park might be the only time I would get to see his songs performed all at one time. The show was an excellent display of talent. Performers like Glen Hansard and Market Irglova of The Swell Season, Angelique Kidjo, Nona Hendryx, Eric Mingus, The Persuasions, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James were backed by a core band comprised of The Midnight Ramble’s Steven Bernstein, SNL’s Lenny Pickett and longtime Withers collaborator Cornell Dupree.
I showed up early. I parked it on the lawn as close to the VIP area as I could. You can imagine my surprise when, roughly halfway through the first song, the performers gestured to this gray-haired man sitting near the front in a light blue t-shirt.
“That’s Bill Withers,” I said, thinking aloud to myself. Someone behind me, concurred, and almost in unison, we locked eyes and said, “He’s gonna perform!”
A few other performers made reference to his reluctance to perform, when finally, near the end of the show, he scaled the stage, sat next to Dupree and belted out the lyrics to “Grandma’s Hands.”
The heart of the teenage rapper in me burst out of my rib cage. My body uncontrollable, I danced as hard as I’ve ever danced, tears streaming in pure joy as though Bill Withers was performing just for me in the park where I ran every day his music kicked off each day, making those some of the loveliest of days.
The whole thing was captured for a documentary entitled Still Bill.
I put together Spotify and iTunes playlists of my favorite songs.
While I’m sad Bill Withers is gone, I’m so glad he gave me so much music to wrap my memories around. Thank you, Bill.
[Ed. update, Hal Willner, the organizer of the 2008 show in Prospect Park, passed away on April 8, 2020, the result of this terrible virus. Seth Meyers paid him a beautiful tribute.]
If all this whetted your appetite for more from Withers, I highly recommend investing a couple hours in Netflix’s The Black Godfather, a great story of Clarence Avant, the man who signed Withers to his first record contract.