Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Soul Legend and Songwriter, Bill Withers

April 14, 2020
Bill Withers Getty Images

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Monday, April 13 on the death of soul singer and songwriter, Bill Withers.  

“It is with deep sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the passing of Bill Withers, the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who penned iconic songs recognized as some of the greatest soul hits of all time. His lyrics and warm voice gave hope and brought joy to many.  

A native of West Virginia, Withers started his career far from a recording studio. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Navy and it proved to be his ticket out of his small hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia. After a nine-year career in the Navy, Withers arrived in Los Angeles in 1967 to pursue a career in music. He worked at Weber Aircraft during the day and recorded demos at night. He got his break after his self-financed demos caught the attention of Clarence Avant, president of Sussex Records. Withers could not foresee the success of his music, maintaining his job until he was laid off just months before his album’s release.  

In 1971, Withers was invited to perform on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. His appearance on the show helped propel his debut album Just As I Am. The album featured the Grammy-winning tracks ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Grandma’s Hands.’ The album’s success propelled Withers into superstardom giving him the courage to quit his day job. 

Withers’ biggest hit ‘Lean on Me’ was written during a tour hiatus. This simple ode to community and friendship was the centerpiece for Withers’ second album, Still, Bill, released in 1972The subtle folk-soul song is reminiscent of Bill’s childhood in rural West Virginia, where he grew up on the border of black and white neighborhoods listening to country music and gospel music. The success of the albums primed the charts for other hit albums to follow. Withers received two more Grammys for “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. and Club Nouveau’s interpretation of ‘Lean on Me.’  

Though Withers retired from the music industry in 1985 after a relatively short career, his music continues to receive airplay, and his songs have been repurposed countless times by a multitude of artists.  

Bill Withers will be remembered as a legendary musician and figure whose songs will continue to inspire us for years to come.”   

 

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture  
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000 square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000. 

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Media Contact(s): 

Jermaine House (202) 633-9495; housej@si.edu 
Jason Spear (202) 633-9904; spearj@si.edu 

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.