Entertainment behind the scenes
Ain’t no spotlight in the works for soul icon Bill Withers
If you never saw Bill Withers perform during his heyday in the 1970s, you’re out of luck. The 70-year-old singer/songwriter of such soul standards as “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” says he has no desire to mount a late-era comeback because he gets more applause now than when he was on stage.
“When I was actually out there, I played small places, I never drew that many people, I didn’t get any applause,” he said during a chat this week with a few journalists. “The kind of stuff that I did, actually, it took about 30 years for it to sink in. But when I was current, I wasn’t that big a deal. So I learned my lesson. If I stay at home, things go well for me. I don’t want to show up and screw it up.”
Withers and his statuesque singer/songwriter daughter Kori were attending a book party in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and he indeed garnered a lot of applause and adoration. Maybe he has a point. So what does he do all day?
“I’m having fun, working with my daughter,” he said. “I’m just kinda like the band-dad. I let ‘em use my house, and clean up after ‘em sometimes, and speak ill of ‘em when they’re gone.”
Another reason why Withers does not miss the spotlight is that he was late getting to it in the first place. He worked for nine years as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Navy, and spent the second half of the 1960s struggling to land a record deal in Los Angeles. He finally released his first album in ’71, “Just As I Am,” and won a songwriting Grammy for the hit single “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
He released his ninth and final album in 1985. His MBA-trained wife administers his lucrative catalog. “You’ve got to keep her busy, or she’s a pain in the butt,” he said.
Some other bons mots:
HIS INFLUENCES: “My favorite early writings were clever people like Chuck Berry and Leiber & Stoller … It had some literary value in that it didn’t lean on the cliches. They were authentic things. They were for real.”
ELVIS PRESLEY: “Elvis didn’t influence me at all. I might have influenced him more than he influenced me, if you can dig it … Elvis was more of a spectacle to me. I always thought it was funny. Nothing against it, but it didn’t bring anything new to me.”
THE BLUES: “People ask you, ‘Do you listen to the classical blues things like Bessie Smith?’ No, there was a man living down the street from me that was like that. I’m from Slab Fork, West Virginia, so that stuff is part of the whole culture.”