Among the most enduring of the childhood traumas I faced when I was growing up in the ’70s was an anti-drug film they showed to my parochial school class. A junkie threw up milk and tossed heroin into an open sore on their leg, all to the tune of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” It ruined the song, and Bill Withers, for me for years. But circumstances led me to see Withers, and hear the song again, at an ASCAP concert this year, and between that and the documentary Still Bill, I wanted to hear more.
When you see clips of Bill Withers in the ’70s – usually performing one of his signature hits like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” – you see a man thoroughly at ease in front of the camera, comfortable in his voice whether he’s singing a song or telling a story – or both. But after that initial rise his star fell, and despite an occasional and even major hit record, his career never fully recovered. It’s a story that can be told about a lot of artists, but just as a lot of artists tell the same stories, it’s all about the telling. Even if Withers never sings another note, he’s Still Bill, his Voice intact. And the arc of his career can be traced by what happened to that Voice.
Withers’ success came relatively late in life, in an industry which preys on the young and vulnerable. Born in a small town called Slab Fork in West Virginia, he was in the Navy at 21 and by the time his talent – and soon enough, fleeting fame – caught up with him he was 32 and working in a factory making toilets. Then “Ain’t No Sunshine” happened. He had a few hits for Sussex but the small label folded and he found himself in the hands of a major label, Columbia Records. He explains that his early hits were not at all part of the music city formula: there was no intro, no horns, no backup singers. Columbia forced him to change, and his music suffered. Contrast the modest confidence of his early television appearances with an American Bandstand appearance lip-syncing to the banal “Just the Two of Us,” a huge hit for him despite sounding nothing like the Bill Withers of old. And he knows it too, he performs like a man utterly bored. Though still a commanding physical presence, he has the air of a news anchorman on a slow news day, rolling his eyes at the prospect of one more godawful human interest story.
But Withers’ is the best kind of human interest story. He overcame stuttering as a child – the only time you hear him stutter in the film is when he first returns to his old town – and he’s generously worked with a foundation for stuttering children.
Bill Withers in fact does not sing for most of the movie; you hear tales of musicians trying to get him back in the action, which he resists despite having a home studio set up. But he finally caves, and if the material isn’t up to his salad days, the voice is still startling: mellowed, perhaps more sensitive, but still Bill.