The last African-American Everyman – Bill Withers

We’ve all tapped our toes to his many hits, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day.” Born and raised just south of us was a trail-blazing soul music singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: Bill Withers.

A native of Slab Fork, a small coal-mining town in Raleigh County, Bill Withers spent much of his young life in Beckley. He was born with a stutter that made it hard for him to fit in. But he always found comfort in music, and was inspired at a young age by gospel, country, blues, and bluegrass. Speaking to The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, he described how growing up in that small town, with neighbors helping neighbors, heavily influenced his hit “Lean on Me”: “My family didn’t have a refrigerator, and the people across the street across the street from us didn’t have a phone. So we helped each other. They gave us ice, and we let them use our phone.”

In 1956, Withers signed up for the Navy, where he served for nine years as an aircraft mechanic. During that time, he developed an interest in songwriting and worked determinedly in speech therapy—finally overcoming his stutter. He then settled in Los Angeles, working in the aviation industry by day and singing in nightclubs while waiting for his big break. When he signed to Sussex Records in 1971, he released his debut album Just As I Am. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a #3 R&B radio hit and won the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song that year. It’s now on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest 500 Songs of All Time.

When Bill Withers passed away in 2020, there was an outpouring of love on social media for “the last African-American Everyman,” whose cheery tunes were performed at presidential inaugurations, whose music can lift anyone up on a bad day. In addition to all those things, we’ll remember him as one of our finest West Virginians.