The sun still shines even when he’s gone
Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2015, The Roots’ Questlove sums up recently departed soul legend Bill Withers with clarity: “He’s the last African-American Everyman. Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing Black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” Revisiting Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s 2009 documentary, Still Bill (available on YouTube), you quickly understand what that statement means and why his songs have retained their power for so long.
In a decade decorated with soul luminaries Withers is an artist who rarely appears close to the top of retrospective lists of the period. Which is no slight on his talents given the names usually placed above him, and is probably just the way he prefers it. This BBC documentary captures him as he turns 70, almost two-and-a-half decades after walking away from the music business in 1985. At heart he was always a family man and rather than let the industry drive him into the ground he understood the value of having a life away from his craft. “I like music, but I’m not gonna place my whole worth on it,” he says candidly.
Whether singing or talking, what you hear in Withers’ warm voice is experience, the sound of a man who has lived a life and seen what the world is really like at ground level. He entered the music industry in his early 30s, after spending almost a decade serving in the navy, followed by stints working as a milkman and installing toilets into 747s. A clip with Bob Harris in 1973 hears him recall how he thought “it would be awfully nice to get into the music business” and it’s that sort of simplicity that carried across into his songs, speaking a truth that so many are able to connect with. It also explains why the likes of “Ain’t No Sunshine” (inspired by Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses), “Just the Two of Us” and “Lean on Me” quickly became standards covered by countless other musicians.
Still Bill (taking its title from Withers’ second album of the same name) makes the presumption that most viewers already know his back catalogue, placing an emphasis on how he has remained grounded despite the success. The documentary shows him living comfortably with long-time wife and career manager Marcia after raising their two children Todd and Kori, years after turning his back on a career that saw him win (only) three Grammys. Marcia reveals he continued to write songs long into retirement, while Withers prefers us to believe he’s at a loss in his home studio, barely able to turn on the mixing board, let alone a microphone.
Baker and Vlack do at least cover the basics of the singer-songwriter’s humble beginnings. Born as the last of thirteen children in 1938 he grew up in the tiny mining community of Slab Fork, West Virginia at the height of black and white division in the South. He also had to overcome a stutter that saw him labelled as “handicapped” at school, affecting his confidence and ambition in the process. We see him revisit the area and spend time with a childhood friend as they stroll down memory lane, recalling simpler times. A visit to the local graveyard acts as a stark reminder of the South’s inherent racism, where white people’s graves are nicely pruned, while Withers has to wander into the trees to find his brother’s gravestone hidden beneath thick shrubbery.
Withers proves to be entertaining company, an intelligent, quick-witted thinker happy to speak his mind (and no doubt encouraged by his senior status). He’s seen conversing with philosopher Cornel West and Tavis Smiley about his career, smartly turning the talk show host’s comment about Withers’ refusal to sell out on its head: “The best sign any business owner can put up is ‘Sold Out’.” West asks what he wants his legacy to be. Withers takes a long pause to reflect, but any answer he might have given is not included here. The knack for storytelling – that made his music feel so compelling – shines through into the many idioms layered across his sentences. Engaging company who could regale you with pearls of wisdom and insight, Withers solemnly mentions he was prone to periods of manic depression, a condition that no doubt stimulated and hindered his art and personal life in equal measure.
Since the release of his last album, “Watching You Watching Me”, in 1985 Withers only officially returned to the recording booth on one occasion for a duet with Jimmy Buffett. So whether inspired by this opportunity to reflect on his career or just a lucky coincidence, we see him fire up the home studio again to collaborate with singer Raul Midón, although as we know, the full project never came to fruition. Daughter Kori speaks about overcoming her anxiety of pursuing a musical career in the shadow of such a musical giant, eventually learning to use his blunt feedback to guide her, rather than let it stop her from pursuing her dreams.
While we never get to hear Withers’ response to the question about his legacy, the longevity of his work continues to speak louder than words. In comparison to many of his peers, his career may have been short (Withers was of the belief it lasted only eight years) but what he gave to the world during that period is timeless. Like the man himself, Still Bill is an unfussy portrait, showing a self-taught artist grateful to have made the most of his abilities. His music continues to reach out to us in a time when we need it most, the legacy of his songs providing a comfort we are all able to lean on.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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