Bill Withers spent time in the Navy and did factory work before starting his music career at age 32. His songs "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," "Lovely Day" and "Lean On Me" made him a star, but he quit the business in 1985 and has declined the many offers to perform again. After two years of filming and a trip with Withers back to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, Still Bill gives us a look inside his world.In 2004, I got 30 minutes on the phone with Bill Withers. This was no small feat, since he rarely does interviews.
I can understand why Withers shuns the media: he doesn't want someone else framing his image. Words like "reclusive" and "enigmatic" would show up, and we'd completely miss the point, which is to constantly evaluate what is important in life. On the other hand, his work and wisdom are too valuable not to share. This is where his wife Marcia comes in. She looks after his business affairs and acts as his champion, making sure any press coverage tells the real story. That's why he's not on VH-1, but he'll talk to a little website that wants to know how he came up with his brilliant songs. And that's why a small film company with the right motive was given unprecedented access. Withers did his best work with handfuls of talented people unencumbered by corporate restraints, and it took a similar group to make this movie.
Still Bill is a wonderfully subtle film that honors Withers' story. We don't hear about his brief marriage to a Hollywood actress or his son's battle with Asperger Syndrome. The closest we get to Behind The Music material is a rant about Columbia Records, which he says was filled with "Blacksperts": guys with bad ideas like having him cover "In The Ghetto." We see clips from his fame days in the early '70s, telling Johnny Carson how he installed toilets on airplanes - and liked it. By the time we get to 1980, he's lip-synching "Just The Two Of Us" on American Bandstand, and he looks like he'd rather be anywhere else. Here is where Withers says, "The fame game was kicking my ass."
Withers took himself off the A-list and focused on his role as husband and father. It's what you don't see on Behind The Music, but it's real life, and it's hard. As Withers says, "You need to find something that drives you - the sheer activity of doing something that jacks you up, makes you excited."
We're used to seeing extraordinary talent from eccentrics - the guys who don't handle moderation well and are more likely to get tattoos. Withers is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, but he'd rather blend in than stand out. Whatever is in his DNA that produced "Lean On Me" didn't separate him from reality. His flaws are common ones: He makes bad fashion choices, is baffled by computers, and gives his daughter Kori criticism when she needs encouragement. He also swells with pride when his son is accepted to law school, and is moved to tears when Kori, who is wired for music, records with him in his studio.
Withers knows he's good - he told me that his "gift" was an accident of birth - but I don't think he understands the extent of his influence, or his remarkable ability to energize and enlighten the people he speaks with. Our humble website was just starting to get some attention when he granted our interview request, and his validation was profound: the songs are important, and their stories should be told. In Still Bill, we see Withers' effortlessly engage his audience time and again, making whoever he speaks with feel like they are the most important person to him at that moment.
Throughout the film, Withers dispenses tidbits like, "Value the people who value you." It's good stuff, but the best takeaway might be a lesson in how to deal with our limitations. Withers had a terrible stuttering problem until he was 28 years old. It forced him to measure his words and put off his music career, but that had the side effect of nurturing his songwriting. In the film, he delivers a moving speech to a group of children who stutter. But it's the children who have the last word when they perform a heartfelt song about their struggles. This man who has inspired so many is moved to tears, and thanks the children for reminding him of some things he had forgotten. It is no wonder why he would prefer to tell his story through experiences like these. They frame his image as it truly is, full of humility and grace.
February 25, 2010
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