Bill Withers sprang from, and came to epitomize, one of America’s great under-sung traditions, a style of laconic expression (see Arthur Alexander or Bobby Hebb or even Mississippi John Hurt) that Black America kept close to the vest until the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement made permanent middle-class respectability seem like more than a pipe dream.
I’m not sure how much of that aspiration-fueled ideal really exists anymore despite considerable economic progress. Money’s a start, but it’s far from everything. But in the moment when progress felt not necessarily real but certainly within reach, Bill Withers was a–perhaps the–key player. He wasn’t just the poor boy made good, or even the coal miner’s son come to conquer the city. He was the one who did all that by honoring tradition without letting anyone fool themselves into thinking he had gone any way but his own.
His voice, whether singing, writing, or playing, was warm without being sentimental. You always knew you were in the presence of someone who saw clearly and had parlayed that clarity into a life that most people who wanted to climb to the middle of the ladder (no further) from the bottom had to lie, cheat or sell their souls for. He made it on talent and, as they say, the content of his cantankerous character.
For about five years in the 70’s there was no one like him. When the business demanded for too long that he go with the rest, he left the business and lived out his days as a kind of Grand Old Man figure.
He passed away this week at 81, with the fight he put up–the fight to be judged by a new ideal–long lost for any but the grifters.
We should not forget how it might have been….what the Revolution was like in his hands.