As part of his Soul's Survivors series, NY1's Dean Meminger filed the following report on Bill Withers, who didn't start his career as a professional singer until he was in his 30s but ended up writing songs that captured everyday emotions.
Singing songs you can feel in your heart and soul, Bill Withers was able to capture everyday emotions and turn them into music that will last a lifetime, and perhaps beyond.
"The first thing you hear for a while is me playing an instrument. 'Lean On Me,' me playing the piano, and 'Ain't No Sunshine,' me playing the guitar. And I can't play either one of 'em," Withers says. "I can't tell you how many little children come to me and say, you know, 'Lean On Me was the first song I learned to play on the piano.'"
The simple yet beautiful tune of "Lean On Me," he says, is due to his keeping his fingers in the same position and moved them along the piano keyboard.
Surprisingly, Bill Withers didn't become a professional singer until he was already in his 30s, after he learned what deep-voiced superstar Lou Rawls was earning performing in night clubs.
"Somehow or another, it was mentioned that he was paying Lou $2,000 a week," Withers says. "And I thought, like, 'Really?'"
Withers says he already had a bunch of songs in his head, so he started writing them down, and the hits started coming in the '70s. But he had a big obstacle that he continued to work on.
"You can't just manufacture a gift. So somewhere in the back of my thing, I knew that I was musical from a little boy," he says. "But I stuttered really bad until I was maybe 28. So I wasn't very outgoing in that sense, because people who stutter, you speak only when you need to."
The songs now speak for so many, including a love song called "Grandma's Hands" about his grandmother.
Now in his mid-70s, he says he is not all that interested in trying to get up on stage and perform as a senior citizen.
"You know, you see an old guy, man, he's just trying to get from the 7-Eleven back to the bus stop if he's not driving, or back to the parking lot," he says. "You figure, I lived well into my 30s without doing this, so I learned how to live without people looking at me or applauding me. This was a late addition to my life."
Withers' first published song was inspired by a beloved city neighborhood — "Harlem."
"The most fascinating place, the place that I heard about all my life, in folklore, so I wanted to go," he says.
Bill Withers says music isn't something you do, but who you are.