William Harrison ‘‘Bill’’ Withers Jr. (July 4, 1938 – March 30, 2020) was born into a miner’s family of 13 children in Slab Fork, Raleigh County, West Virginia. His mother moved the family to Beckley when Withers was 3, but he continued to spend weekends in Slab Fork. By the time he was 15, Withers was singing with gospel groups in the Beckley area and playing baseball. He spent a summer in the 1950s playing professional baseball in the Negro League. At age 17, he joined the U.S. Navy where he spent the next nine years.
Withers was discharged in San Jose in 1965, and moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to pursue a full-time music career. In 1970, Clarence Avant of Sussex Records introduced Withers to Booker T. Jones of the band Booker T. and the M.G.s. In 1971, Withers released his first album, Just As I Am, including his first Grammy-winning song, ‘‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’’ Sussex released ‘‘Lean On Me’’ in April 1972. It topped the charts on July 8, 1972, where it remained for three weeks. He remained active in music through his publishing company. In addition to his Grammy in 1972 for ‘‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’’ he won a Grammy in 1982 for ‘‘Just the Two of Us,’’ and another in 1988 for ‘‘Lean on Me,’’ re-made that year by the band, Club Nouveau.
Bill Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. On April 18, 2015, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Cleveland. Bill Withers died in Los Angeles from heart complications. He was 81.
In 2017, Bill Withers was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from West Virginia University, upon being nominated by WVU Associate Professor of Musicology, Travis D. Stimeling. In tribute to one of West Virginia’s finest, we are sharing that nomination letter, and the accompanying letters of support from Associate Professor of Music at Carleton College, Andrew Flory; West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard; and the Director of the Center for Popular Music and Professor of Music History at Middle Tennessee State University, Gregory Reish. Letters are shared with permission from their authors.
Rest in power, Bill.