7 of the greatest Bill Withers songs ever
3 April 2020, 18:47
Bill Withers was one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and dare we say it, a tad underrated.
Following his sad passing at the age of 81, we've picked just a handful of his very best songs that we will never get enough of hearing, from the uplifting to the heartbreaking.
1. 'Ain't No Sunshine'
Produced by Booker T Jones and featuring Stephen Stills on guitar, Bill was inspired to write this song after watching the 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses. He said of the two main characters: “They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you.”
For the third verse, Bill intended to write more lyrics instead of repeating the phrase ‘I know’ 26 times, but followed the advice of the other musicians to leave it that way.
2. 'Lovely Day'
Released in 1977, this summer tune is notable for Bill's amazing sustained note towards the end, which at 18 seconds long, is one of the longest ever recorded.
Bonus fact: 'Ghostbusters' star Ray Parker Jr played guitar on the song!
3. 'Lean on Me'
His first and only number one single on both the soul singles and the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, this soul anthem was inspired by his childhood in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia.
He later told Songfacts: "I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, 'OK, I like the way that phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.'"
4. 'Grandma's Hands'
Written by Bill about his grandmother, this song was produced by Booker T Jones. His maternal grandfather, Grackus Monroe Galloway, had been born into slavery. As a boy, Bill would attend church with his grandmother Lula.
He later said: “It was spontaneous singing, there was nothing programmed. People got up and sang and everybody would join in. It was my favourite kind of singing.” It was later sampled as the hook in Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ in 1996.
5. 'Use Me'
This song was a number two hit for Bill in 1972, and was later covered by Grace Jones in 1981.
In it, he complains about the advice of his friends, who have made it "their appointed duty" to talk him out of a romantic relationship they see as one-sided, and how the singer is "used".
6. 'Just the Two of Us'
A collaboration with Grover Washington Jr, this was another number two hit for Bill in 1981.
The laid back love song has been covered by a host of artists, most famously by Will Smith as a tribute to his son.
7. 'Who is He (and What is He To You?)'
This song finds Bill angry and accusatory, as he thinks his partner has been cheating on him. He later explained: “Stan McKenney sent those lyrics to me in the mail.
"I’ve gotten a gazillion things in the mail and that’s the only one I’ve ever done something with, because I could see it. If I don’t see it, it doesn’t occur to me, so I don’t attempt to say it.” It was later used in the soundtrack for Jackie Brown.