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Entertainment behind the scenes

Ain’t no spotlight in the works for soul icon Bill Withers

By Dean Goodman
June 19, 2009

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. 

withers“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.”


Wither’s ridiculous notion of what Presley meant to him reminds me of somehting writer Jackson Baker once wrote, in the July 2002 issue “Memphis Magazine”.He said “One thing he (Presley) was not, ever, was “Steve-’n-Edie”, the polished, professionally accomplished Vegas artists who once pronounced on an afternoon interview show (Mr. Lawrence enunciating the sentiment for himself and his partner/wife, Ms. Gorme), “We don’t really think of Elvis as a singer. But he was a star.” It is only when, years later, one gets past the indignation of hearing such apparent ignorance, that the sense of the observation becomes clear. A singer is someone like Steve Lawrence rolling effortlessly (and meaninglessly) through a shlock-standard like “What Now, My Love?”. More or less like doing the scales. A star is the persona in whom one invests one’s vicarious longings, a being who is constantly hazarding — and intermittently succeeding at — the impossible stretches that every soul wishes to attempt but lacks the means or the will to. It’s not a matter of virtuosity.”The same with Withers’s ludricous observations, namely that Elvis “was more of a spectacle”, that “it didn’t bring anything new to him” or, to make him appear as the most ridiculous person to ever have said anything about Presley, that he “might have influenced him more than he influenced me”.How could he could have possibly influenced Presley when Elvis, who was incidentally three years his senior, was changing the world of music at a small studio in Memphis, on July 5, 1954, thus fusing the two most importamt music idioms then in existance in America, namely R%B and C%W, while Withers, at that precise time, was still a good 4 years away from even being interested in music, a happening which in turn had taken place a full three years after he enrolled in the Navy. And he enrolled in 1956.

Posted by Jim Burrows | Report as abusive

Elvis didn’t influence Bill Withers? What a joke!! All one needs to do is listen to the 1960 Elvis song “Summer Kisses, Winter Tears” to hear how Withers was influenced when writing “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Posted by Charles Mayer | Report as abusive

Here’s two things Bill Withers never found out, to this day, the knowledge of which Presley did take to his grave yet was always too modest to admit.One was that his recordings at an independent label (SUN Records, 1954-1955), became so groundbreaking that someone as gifted as Barry Gordy Jr (read it in his autobiography), decided right there and then (1957), to launch an independent label for the African American market which would eventually give Detroit-based and other black musicians, the same opportunities that SUN Records in Memphis had given Presley. That was TAMPA, which became MOTOWN.Check that out, Mr. Withers. Would having that knowledge have influenced your feelings towards Presley? Would you have considered Presley’s legacy, or his influence, “funny”, had you been privy to it?The other is the decision by SONY (in a country located as far away as it possibly could, namely in Japan), to invest heavily on the early research and development, then production, of, take this, radios (transistors or otherwise), record players, television and every possible music-related product as a result of the doubling, tripling, quadrupling and, in some cases, tenfold increases in the sale of precisely those products as a direct result of Presley’s phenomenal attack on the American entertainment market during the 12 month period starting in January of 1956. It was entirely different in 1955.What made the difference was, for starters, i) the 10 million records he sold in 1956 (half the output of RCA, then the biggest record label in the world), ii) the 500,000 teenagers attending his 180 sold out concerts, grossing millions for its organizers, iii) the 260 million cumulative TV viewers he drew in his 11 personal appearances, half of them on prime time television that year, iv) the 7 million teenagers attending his first movie and last, but not least (v), the US$22 million in sales related to Presley product (US$ 166 million in today’s dollars, after inflation adjustment), which in turn resulted in a 300 percent increase in the sale of Gibson and Martin guitars that year.SONY “read” what all of these figures meant , and away it went. Was that the spectacle Mr. Withers was talking about? I doubt it, since he joined the Navy that year and had little chance to ever finding that out. Obviously, Mr. Withers could care less that this was going on, while he was in the service of his country, but he should know the history of rock and roll music, an d learnt about it, after his discharge.Moreover, as important as Chuck Berry and Leiber and Stoller were in its early development, they were not the ones who put rock and roll, and its various derivatives, on the world map. And I mean on the world map. Presley did, and Withers should at least “know” how the whole thing happened before making ridiculous statements about him.

Posted by Jim Burrows | Report as abusive

White people are crazy, it embarasses me (I’m white). Elvis made black music popular to white folks, live with it.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Mike, you’re a contradiction. A white person who calls other white people crazy because we grasp, we understand, what it means for a white person to love the blue which I suppose, is also your case (that you love the blues).Presley wasn’t some New Yorker, or a young guy from Chicago, or from New Orleans who learnt who love the blues by going to bars, or listen to the blues on the radio.He was a boy from Tupelo, MS, who used to hang around with African Americans across the tracks, in a place caled Shakerag, just outside East Tupelo, and who then moved, of all places, to Memphis, TN, and hung around Beale Street, where he mingled with B.B. King, and some of the greats.It is an entirely different proposition. If you had been there, instead of him and had his unerring ear, and his voice, you would have been Elvis Presley. So, it is you who would have to live with that, as long as people speak about Elvis.And that will be, long after you and I pass away.

Posted by Jim Burrows | Report as abusive

To limit the influence of Elvis to just some guy who “made black music popular to white folks” makes about as much sense as limiting the influence of Chuck Berry to some guy who… because of the country sound to his music… made white music popular to black folks.Look, rock ‘n’ roll was the merging of R&B and country so its roots isn’t just black music or just white music.As for Elvis, he wasn’t just popular with white folks. He was more popular on black radio and the R&B charts of the late 1950s than any black rock ‘n’ roller. This fact is driven home by the fact that Elvis, not Chuck Berry, was the idol of a young Jimi Hendrix. Live with it.

Posted by Charles Mayer | Report as abusive

Good point, Charles, and that ain’t all. The more talented, the better informed any African American was, or is, the more they truly appreciat Elvis’s magic. Barry White was serving time in jail at the age of 14. Many years later, at the Oxford Union, in England, he credited Elvis’ “It’s now or never” as his main inspiration, for a life in music. Muhammed Ali, then a 14 year old named Cassius Clay, who saw him in his own hometown of Louisville, also became a huge fan, for life. James Brown, his contemporary, even went to Preley’s funeral. He loved him all his life. Same with Jackie Wilson, Isaac Hayes, and even Al Greene, the latter finally meeting him, by chance, as they stood next to each other, in the men’s room at Memphis restaurant. Green did not know what to do, he said recently (whether to shake his hand, or not…LOL). As it turned out, Greene felt it was not something which would be called for. Eddie Murphy, who has an Elvis room in his mansion. Chuck D, who retracted his original diatribes against Elvis in “Fight the power” (1989), saying he had a lot of respect for Elvis’ brilliance, as a musicologist (in 2002, finally). Even someone as gifted as Quincy Jones, playing the trumpet for the Dorsey band, who was backing Presley at CBS studio in New York, in early 1956, said many years later he was stunned by the then 21 year old Presley’s magic.

Posted by Jim Burrows | Report as abusive

There are two version of Hendrix’s attending Elvis’ show at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle, on 1 September 1957. One of them has Jimi and his brother not having enough money to buy the tickets, and going with about a hundred others to a high, grassy hill across the back of the stadium ( an interstate highway passing in between), where the stage had been set up.With binoculars handy, he and his brother were able to follow, and hear the entire concert. For the last song, Presley had reserved “Hound Dog”, but he did not deliver it until after giving it a lenghty introduction where he said, for the 14,000 there to hear, that he was going to sing the National Anthem. And he did, on his knees, his gold lame jacket shining through the stadium’s lights. This certainly influenced Jimi’s decision to deliver the Anthem at Woodstock, as he had done earlier, at the Monterrey Pop Festival.But there was more to come. Unlike the other 14,000, who left the stadium through the various exists at about 11 pm, Hendrix and his brother just walked up the grassy hill, ending up in a quiet neighborhood street.To their surprise and amazement, they watched as Presley’s limousine, which by mere chance had chosen that particular path for its getway, approached them. Unbelievable as it may seem, Presley’s limo passed right next to them. The week after, Hendrix’s dada bought his son his first electric guitar and the rest is history.Ten or so years later, disheartened by what had seemed to be a bad decision, to tour En gland before making it in the US, Hendrix flew from London to Paris, to chill and re-think his strategy. As luck would have it, his “friend” Elvis came to the rescue. Walking the streets, he came upon a midnight showing of “King Creole”, a movie nhe hadn’t seen in 1958. The movie lightned his spirit and, when he returned to London a few days after, he conquered that city, just as Elvis’ character in “King Creole” had done, with New Orleans.He remained an Elvis fan, throughout his life.

Posted by Jim Burrows | Report as abusive

You guys are laying down a serious amount of BS on this post. Elvis Presley was great. But he definitely soaked up Black culture, incorported it into his sound and then popularized and capitalized from it. Who can argue with that?

Posted by I've Got News For You | Report as abusive

The Real Deal is That..

Without white folks oppressing black folks ie slavery..there would be no blues… and without black folks there would be no Elvis… Think about that..

Posted by therealdeal3 | Report as abusive

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