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Bill Withers, then and now

A Conversation with Bill Withers

Puremusic: When you were growing up in West Virginia, what was the first music that affected you emotionally?

Bill Withers: There wasn't that much radio back there. Mostly country music. And there was music in the church, and whatever they taught you at school. And then there was the old Frank Sinatra-Nat King Cole genre type music. So, whatever I could stand to listen to, I listened to. I don't think I was that conscious of it then, because I wasn't really doing any music or anything. It was just something to listen to. I liked Gospel music like The Five Blind Boys, because when we were kids, that's something that we could do without owning any instruments. You just get three or four guys that want to try to harmonize and you could do it.

PM: Did you sing in church?

BW: I was a stutterer until I was 28. A really chronic stutterer. So in my younger years, I wasn't too inclined to jump up in front of people and try to communicate verbally. I was just one of the kids growing up around there, doing whatever. Whatever some older person came up with an idea to organize some kids to do. You know what I mean? Back then, there weren't many adults involved in kids' activities. Nobody knew where you were most of the day unless you were in school, because it wasn't dangerous, in that sense of the word. Kids just went out and met up with each other and played some kind of way.

PM: In the years since, have you explored your family tree to see if there were any musicians or singers?

BW: Well, that's not a reality for me. My family tree isn't that explorable. My mother's father was born in 1854 in Virginia. He was born a slave. So I can't go back very far. I have no idea of anything beyond my grandparents. It's just not available beyond that. There was my grandmother on my mother's side that I knew, and the other grandparents were just rumors. So I don't have that available to me. Not unless I was one of these library kind of people. I'm not interested in that kind of stuff. I don't want to know. So if there were any musicians back there, I don't know them. I heard rumors that somebody played the fiddle for square dances and stuff, but I don't know.

PM: During your nine years in the navy, you toured around the world. Were there any events along the way that made you consider being a musician or a songwriter?

BW: I had no musical experiences in the navy. If we drank too much, somebody might try to sing something on the way home. [laughs] After I got out, when I'd go to night clubs, I was only trying to meet girls. I wasn't looking for any music.

But I started to see people in those clubs, people like Lou Rawls, and Little Willie John near the end of his life, and here's what made me interested: I remember once this bartender walking up and down the bar, and somebody was late, either Lou Rawls or Little Willie John, and he said, "You know, I'm paying this guy two thousand dollars a week, and he can't even show up on time."

At that time, I think was working at IBM, and my salary was $102 a week. And I thought, "Wait a minute, they're paying this guy two thousand a week? He doesn't even have to get up in the morning." And it seemed something that was accessible to me. So then I probably started singing in the shower and just kind of seeing if it was something I thought I could do. And I guess there was some latent desire to want to say some things. I probably had some kind of hidden poet buried in my soul somewhere. Sort of a casual interest turned into pursuit.

PM: Was there a particular person who heard you early on and said, "This guy's got something unique?"

BW: There were different people along the way, different friends who would say, "Maybe this is something that you could do." But I don't remember anybody that specific. It was just something that sort of gathered. My mother used to tell me I could do it. But everybody's mother tells them they can do everything. My mother would hear me around the house and tell me that I should look into it. But then, on the other side of the coin, you probably get just as many people telling you to shut up. [laughs]

Gradually something lets you know that maybe you should pursue that. Plus, sometimes you just do stuff because it's something to do.

PM: I think it's remarkable that you were 28 years old when you started to make your first demos. Even by the standards of the music business then, that was what A & R men would call "old."

BW: I was a little older than that, actually. But that's close enough. I feel really lucky, because I get offered record deals now. The funny thing is, right after I did "Just The Two of Us" with Grover [Washington], I tried to get a record deal and I couldn't get one. [laughs] Now that I don't care, I get offers!

I have a funny phrase. I call A & R Departments Antagonistic & Redundant Departments. [laughs] Because there's always somebody in there who thinks they know what's going on. They ask you, "How long is the intro? How long is the song? Are you gonna put horns on it?" I've always come out of left field anyway, because I know I've gotten away with doing songs like "Lean On Me," which is not about romantic love, it's just sort of generic feeling for people. Or "Grandma's Hands." If you walked up to some guy in a bar and said, "You know, I really love my grandmother," he'd probably move away from you.   continue

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