The understated Bill Withers is a Soul music legend, respected for his elegant songwriting and an exceptional voice that compliments his words. We tried to get a sense for why his songs have had such impact, and were treated to a thought-provoking discussion on transference, the X-factor, and making the complicated simple.
Carl Wiser (SF): Your songs have endured, and we're hoping you can tell us about some of them. "Ain't No Sunshine," can you tell us what inspired you to write that?
Bill Withers: It's pretty obvious what it's about. I was watching a movie called Days Of Wine And Roses (1962) with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. It's like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you. It's just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I'm not aware of.
To me, songwriting is you sitting around scratching yourself and something crosses your mind. There are probably more great stories made up about the writing of songs after they've been written and received, because you've got to say something. I love listening when there's some song like "Eat My Funky Sweat," and then somebody makes up this profound story about what inspired him to do it. Sometimes the stories are much more profound than the songs. I've gotten into trouble a lot of times. Being at the age now where I'm a certified curmudgeon, you get a little grouchy when you pass 65, I used to do it when I was younger sometimes, I've learned to try to probe a little deeper. Somebody would ask, "What were you thinking when you wrote so and so," and the obvious answer was, "I was thinking what I wrote." So I won't do that to you, Carl.
SF: Thank you for that. So "Ain't No Sunshine" was not based on a personal experience, it was based on the movie?
Mr. Withers: Watching the movie probably affected me and made me stop long enough to putz around, and that phrase crossed my mind, so you just kind of go from there.
SF: When you were in the studio recording that and you get to the classic part where you're doing the "I know, I know," was that a placeholder at the time?
Mr. Withers: Whatever a placeholder is. I wasn't going to do that, then Booker T said, "No, leave it like that." I was going to write something there, but there was a general consensus in the studio. It was an interesting thing because I've got all these guys that were already established, and I was working in the factory at the time. Graham Nash was sitting right in front of me, just offering his support. Stephen Stills was playing and there was Booker T and Al Jackson and Donald Dunn - all of the MGs except Steve Cropper. They were all these people with all this experience and all these reputations, and I was this factory worker in here just sort of puttering around. So when their general feeling was, 'leave it like that,' I left it like that.
SF: How about your song "Lean On Me?" Can you tell me about that one?
Mr. Withers: A lot of time you go back and fill in the blanks. This was my second album, so I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano. So I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. That's often the first song that children learn to play because they don't have to change fingers - you just put your fingers in one position and go up and down the keyboard. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, "OK, I like the way this phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song." So you go back and say, "How do I arrive at this as a conclusion to a statement? What would I say that would cause me to say Lean On Me?" Then at that point, it's between you and your actual feelings, you and your morals and what you're really like. You probably do more thinking about it after it's done. Being from a rural, West Virginia setting, that kind of circumstance would be more accessible to me than it would be to a guy living in New York where people step over you if you're passed out on the sidewalk, or Los Angeles, where you could die on the side of the freeway and it would probably be 8 days before anyone noticed you were dead. Coming from a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid, that would cue me to have those considerations than somebody from a different place. I think what we say is influenced by how we are, what's been our life experiences. Now, I notice young guys writing about shooting each other in the city and stuff like that, well that was not my experience, so I would never have said anything like that because it was not my experience. I'm not from a big city. I think circumstance dictates what people think.
SF: It almost sounds idealized. I'm wondering if this was your life back then that you were thinking of when you were writing it.
Mr. Withers: It sounds idealized if you are from an environment where it's not practical to do that. I'm from an environment where it was practical to do that. That's probably why somebody from New York did not write that song, or somebody from London, or somebody from a large city. It's a rural song that translates probably across demographical lines. Who could argue with the fact that it would be nice to have somebody who really was that way? My experience was, there were people who were that way.
SF: Who would help you out?
Mr. Withers: Yes. They would help you out. Even in the rural South. There were people who would help you out even across racial lines. Somebody who would probably stand in a mob that might lynch you if you pissed them off, would help you out in another way.
I can think of a specific incident. When I was in the Navy, I must have been about 18, 19 years old, and I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida. It was some holiday, I had this car that I was able to buy and I was driving from Pensacola, Florida up to West Virginia. As is the case with young people with cheap cars, the tires weren't that great, so one of my tire blew out on this rural Alabama road. This guy comes walking over the hill that looked like he was right out of the movie Deliverance. Did you see that movie?
SF: With the banjos - yes.
Mr. Withers: He says to me, "Oh, you had a blowout." Well, I didn't have a spare tire. This guy goes walking back across the hill, and I'm not too comfortable here because I know where I am. He comes back walking with a tire, and he actually helps me put the tire on the car. My circumstance, this was not an idealized concept, this was real to me. Now, if you have a tire blow out on the West Side Highway in New York, people who would probably be less inclined to participate in your lynching wouldn't give a fat man if you sat there for 2 years. So, just like the whole American experience, it's very complex and it has it's own little rules and stuff. I thought it was funny when everybody got worked up over Strom Thurmond having this daughter, and I thought, "What else is new?" It depends on your socialization. My socialization was, it was very likely and very practical to expect a Lean On Me circumstance to exist. My adjustment was not adjusting to that circumstance probably being real and probable, my experience was trying to adjust to a world where that circumstance was not the rule rather than the exception. Now I've got you all confused - you started this, Carl.
SF: I did. I can talk about this all day, but we have limited time so let's move on to "Lovely Day." Can you tell us what that means to you and what was the inspiration?
Mr. Withers: The inspiration was the co-writer. We're all sponges in a sense. You put us around very nice people, and the nice things come out in us. You put us around some jerks, and we practice being jerks. Did you ever notice the difference between your own personality when you're hanging out in a room full of jocks or when you're hanging out in a room full of Clarinet players? We all adjust. Or the difference in the way you speak to your grandmother or your best contemporary friend.
So Skip Scarborough, who was a songwriter that did Earth, Wind & Fire stuff, whenever I've collaborated with anybody, their role is predominantly music and mine is predominantly lyrics. People seem to leave me alone with that. Skip, just the way he was - he died recently - was a very nice, gentle man. He would cause me in probing my thoughts, something would occur to me that was more like he is. The way Skip was, every day was just a lovely day. He was an optimist. If I had sat down with the same music and my collaborator had been somebody else with a different personality, it probably would have caused something else to cross my mind lyrically.
SF: So it was more the person than the music itself?
Mr. Withers: No, it was a combination of the music and the person and the ambiance in the room. If you're in a room with a person that's a little bit frightening, you're going to think differently. If somebody had sent you to interview John Wayne Gacy, I don't think there'd be too much humor in your writing, but if somebody sent you to interview some funny guy, something less threatening, then the frivolity in you would have come to the surface.
SF: You play off what's there, I see. Another collaboration you did with Grover, "Just The Two Of Us," can you tell us about that?
Mr. Withers: Grover and I didn't do anything at the same time. My friendship was with Ralph McDonald, who was a writer and a producer, then he has a partner Bill Salter. They had written this song, and I'm a little snobbish about words, so they sent me this song, and said "We want to do this with Grover, would you consider singing it?" I said, "Yeah, if you'll let me go in and try to dress these words up a little bit." Everybody that knows me is kind of used to me that way. They said, "Fine." I actually met Grover when I went over there to sing the song. It was with today's technology and overdubbing and stuff, so I really never got to know Grover that well. My friendship was with Ralph McDonald. I'd admired Grover because Grover did the first cover version that I knew about of any song I'd written - he did an instrumental version of "Ain't No Sunshine." I think it was on his first album. The connection there was with Ralph McDonald, it just happened to be a Grover Washington album.
SF: OK. Anything you can tell us about the lyrics?
Mr. Withers: Some of them were already written. I probably threw in the stuff like the crystal raindrops, as opposed to what it used to be. I don't remember what it used to be. The Just The Two Of Us thing was already written. It was trying to put a tuxedo on it. I didn't like what was said leading up to Just The Two Of Us.
SF: You mentioned you're a lyrics snob, when I thought you were exactly the opposite when listening to some of your songs. You have a way of making your lyrics so simple yet understandable.
Mr. Withers: That's why I'm a snob about it, it's very difficult to make things simple and understandable. You ever sit down and have a conversation with somebody who took their formal education too seriously.
Mr. Withers: And they're speaking and throwing in a bunch of words that you don't have a ready meaning for? You're sitting there nodding because you don't want them to think you're stupid, but what you really think is, there's a lot of easier ways to say it, and you wonder if they even know what the hell they're talking about or if they're just showing off. So to me, the biggest challenge in the world is to take anything that's complicated and make it simple so it can be understood by the masses. Somebody said a long time ago that the world was designed by geniuses, but it's run by idiots. When I say I'm a snob lyrically, I mean I'm a snob in the sense that I'm a stickler for saying something the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry. Because simple is memorable. If something's too complicated, you're not going to walk around humming it to yourself because it's too hard to remember.
SF: It's relatable too, and it's refreshing to hear someone say what they mean.
Mr. Withers: Yes, and the key is to make somebody not only remember it, but recall it over and over and over again. When you mention that some stuff I have written has lasted a long time, I think that's because it's re-accessible. Is that a word, re-accessible?
SF: It is now.
Mr. Withers: That's why the simpler forms of music, which are my favorites, like Country music and The Blues and stuff that states something in a way that everybody can understand and you remember it. There are lines that are so profound, like "The first time ever I saw your face," or Billy Joel's "I love you just the way you are." For somebody to state that in that simple a form - I heard this Country song the other day that really stuck to my ribs, and it was just a simple phrase - "And when the time comes for you to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance."
SF: Yeah, the Lee Ann Womack.
Mr. Withers: Come on man, you can't say that any better. One thing that I said once, that I've never heard anybody say before or since - "Hello like before." That's one of my favorite things that ever crossed my mind. Try saying that in any shorter form, you can't do it. So when I say I'm a snob lyrically, that means, OK, the gauntlet is down - how clear can you make it and in how few words.
SF: Any other ideas on why your songs might be so enduring?
Mr. Withers: Yeah, I have ideas on it. First of all, I don't write a lot of them. I've only done 9 albums in 2000 years. It's not an accident - when I sit down to say something, I not only try to say something to somebody else, but say something for myself. And I don't walk around with a piece of paper in my hand all the time, so if I don't remember it, it means it wasn't very memorable so it's probably in the wind somewhere.
The other thing is that there's an X factor that we all function under. And that has nothing to do with you, it's an accident of birth. That's the gift that you have. That's why it's called a gift, it means you can't go out and buy it, you can't go out and get it from anybody, it has to be given to you. I'm doing the best I can trying to explain this stuff, but I don't have any explanation as to what separates me from anybody else, except certain things were given to me. The real and most profound answer to anything you've asked me - why did you say this or why did you that - is because it crossed my mind. Why did it cross my mind versus crossing your mind or anybody else's mind? I was probably walking around thinking and wondering if the pimple on my cheek was as obvious to anybody else as it was to me and something crossed my mind. The challenge is to make up stories as to why you write a song after somebody becomes interested in it.
The funny thing is, your personal experience, when you're first trying to get started, these songs that now people are interested in, trying to find out how you came up with it, in those days, you couldn't get anybody to sit and listen to the damn thing. They'd start talking halfway through the first verse. You know the most annoying thing in the world? When you've got this new song and you're trying to play it for somebody, and instead of listening to the damn song, they're talking. Then 30 years later, after this song becomes something else, now you're trying to accommodate everybody - and it's flattering, don't get me wrong here, I'm just talking about the irony and the humor in the whole thing - now 30 years later, 50,000 people want you to explain it to them. When at the actual point when you were doing it, when it was fresh in your memory, nobody would even listen to the shit without interrupting.
SF: I told Mrs. Withers I'd use a half an hour and I'm going to honor that. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Mr. Withers: Well, it was fun Carl. I hope I didn't bore you.