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Bill Withers On Songwriting, Sampling & Legendary Concerts From Zaire To Carnegie Hall

Bill Withers On Songwriting, Sampling & Legendary Concerts From Zaire To Carnegie Hall

Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On April 3, 2020, the family of the incomparable Bill Withers announced to the AP that he died at the age of 81 due to heart complications. In 2015, Okayplayer co-presented a Carnegie Hall tribute for the legendary soul singer. Prior to the performance, we spoke to Withers about a number of topics, from sampling to the iconic 1974 concert in Zaire.

Revisit our interview below.

Originally published in September 2015. Interview conducted by Eddie “STATS” Houghton. 

For students of soul, Bill Withers — as Questlove so aptly put it — is our Everyman. An airplane mechanic who never played an instrument until he picked up a guitar and decided to teach himself songwriting — he wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine” on one of his first demos out — Withers also never quit his day-job, even after it was clear he had a hit and a record deal on his hands. More hits followed: “Lean On Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Just The Two of Us,” just to name a few. But after a decade or two of label politics and A&Rs trying to tell him what to sing, Withers famously walked away from it all…yet still managed to live comfortably by retaining control of his own catalog. In addition to gifting us with an inspiring discography of composition, as close to unmediated personal expression as the entertainment biz could handle, his career stands equally as testament to the ideal of craft over industry, of self-determination over the trappings of fame.

A series of retrospective recognitions of Withers’ achievements, beginning with his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, continuing with his ‘Master Class’ lecture at ASCAP’s EXPO 2015 (watch his onstage interview with Aloe Blacc here) and culminating on Thursday, October 1st with a Carnegie Hall Tribute to his music, featuring Michael McDonald, Anthony Hamilton and Ed Sheeran and brought to you in part by Okayplayer, have pulled the reclusive star into the spotlight again this year. The Carnegie Hall tribute, in particular, recreates Withers’ iconic 1972 concert in the legendary performance space–an immortal moment in live music and a highlight in a performing career that also includes stops in Kinshasa to join James Brown, BB King, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, and a few others onstage at the Zaire ’74 concert that accompanied Muhammad Ali’s epic Rumble In The Jungle with George Foreman. Taking advantage of this brief window of press availability, Okayplayer managed to jump on the phone with a mellow, effusive but ever-grounded Withers and pick the troubadour’s thoughts on songwriting, sampling and some of the standout moments from those classic concerts, as well as sussing out his chances of ever recording again, preferably with Questlove at the helm, please and thank you.

Read on for Bill Withers’ definitive Okayplayer Interview:

I know you’re not a big interview guy, but I with the Carnegie Hall tribute coming up figured they’d probably be pressing you for a few.

Oh, I do interviews, it’s just that nobody wants to talk to me. I’m not that interesting.

I beg to differ, we’re very interested! For one thing, I’m interested to know what your perspective is, on this whole Carnegie Hall event…

Well, it’s kind of nice, huh? That people would do that. There are going to be some young people that are probably the age of my kids coming over there to hear my songs, that’s nice.

Were you familiar with most of the artists that were selected for the bill?

Of course. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t tell you [laughs]. Yeah, most of them I’ve had personal interactions with.

I was going to ask you if there are people amongst that generation who are either recording now or just coming up, that you’ve felt were carrying the torch, so to speak, of the music that you pioneered?

Yeah, you know. They’re very nice people, and nice of them to do that. I’m surprised they even know who I am.

Well, you shouldn’t be. You must be aware that a whole generation has been very influenced by your songs; they’re certainly some of the most covered and sampled songs in the world. Which makes me wonder–as an artist who’s always written for yourself, avoided covering others–how do you feel about being covered, yourself? When you wrote songs, did you think about other people performing them and playing them?

No. When I was writing them, I was just trying to finish them. It’s not an easy thing to do. I like the poetry of songs, you know. So I tend to lean toward songs that have some kind of poetic effect. There are a gazillion kinds of music, there’s rock music and dance music and whatever. I just happened to like the poetry of it. It’s challenging to be able to say something reasonably profound in a three-minute time limit, you know? You could sit down and write an article and use sentences and stuff, but songs are different—they have the added burden of having to rhyme. It’s an interesting endeavor.

I think the emphasis on the poetry and lyrics is probably what made the core of your songs so appealing for people to cover or sample over the years. I know you’re pretty active in the publishing process of your music—have there been covers or samples that you didn’t want to approve? That weren’t doing justice to the song and the way you wrote it?

Yeah, there are some things that I haven’t approved. My wife basically does that, and she’ll run it by me. It’s like anything else.

Part of the reason I ask is I’m from the generation that knew “Lean On Me” from the Club Nouveau cover, and even “Lovely Day”— there was a UK group (S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M.) that remixed it, and introduced that music to a whole new generation. How do you feel about that kind of remixing and sampling, as far as that goes?

Well, it depends on the sample. Sometimes you have to go at them, because they do it and they don’t credit you. That can be annoying, and there’s always something going on, somebody trying to get away with that. But it’s flattery when people pick something. They got a lot of mileage out of the “No Diggity” sample and other staples, so yeah that’s fun and flattering. And this is the music business, you know.

In terms of hearing your music played back by other people, and reinterpreted. DO you have favorite songs of your own? I know some artists don’t like to hear their own voice on tape or to listen to someone else play their music, but how do you feel about hearing your own music in somebody else’s hands?

Well, I don’t sit around listening to that stuff, you know. By the time you finish recording it, believe me, you’ve heard it over and over and over again. Especially if you’re your own producer like I’ve been. You don’t let it go until you’re reasonably satisfied with it, so I don’t have any special feelings with that. Plus, it’s been a long time and I’m used to it by now. You know, it’s like your grandfather looking at your grandmother naked. He’s seen it a lot. [laughs] That’s a great analogy.

But aren’t their times when your grandfather looked at your grandmother naked and feels that old feeling again?

Of course—that’s how she got to be your grandmother! When something is right for you, it doesn’t lose its appeal. I think that’s why you were mentioning longevity in songs, I think the ones that last are the ones that don’t lose their appeal. There are some huge songs in a certain period, but you never hear them again. They’ve served their purpose for that period.

There are a lot of beautiful women in the world—why do you stop at one? Who knows…

Photo Credit: Goebel/picture alliance via Getty Images

I know you walked away from the recording side of the music business. Do you still play and write music for yourself?

Yeah, if I wanted to. I mean, I’ve written for other people. I’ve written for Jimmy Buffet. His album ‘When They Built the Statues,’—for Bill Russell in Boston, he asked me to write something. I don’t think songwriting is something you do, I think it’s the way you are. So just because something’s not organized and put into the system doesn’t mean you stop thinking or feeling or whatever you use. I don’t think you can turn that process off unless you die or get some serious dementia. And even through dementia, people—you notice Glen Campbell can still play?

They say music can actually help people recover from things that affect your cognitive understanding—music can be a powerful thing for healing.

Well, I don’t know too many people who have recovered, but it can help you sustain yourself.

Right. It’s good for your mental health. Are you a person who, when you’re relaxing, has a guitar close at hand? Or is it more about when you feel the occasion is right to go write a song?

You know, it’s funny you brought that up. I just realized the other day—I don’t think I’ve picked one up in a couple of years. It’s hanging on the wall right by my desk. I need to go over and pick that up.

I’m glad I put that on your to-do list…

I think my wife bought a guitar on eBay and asked me to tune it, so one day I’ll pick it up and tune it. But different things happen in different times in your life. I’m 77 years old, you know. The things I do now would probably be more common to people of that age group. I would like to run and jump and roll over and stuff like that, but I don’t want to hurt myself.

I don’t know if you know, but the press outlet that I write for was founded by Questlove, who you probably know is a big fan of yours…

Oh, my man! He’s always been very nice to me, he’s overly nice to me. I like him. He’s just been very generous and very kind to me.

I think he’s holding out hope that you guys might record together one day…do you think he’s got a shot?

I don’t know, man. My wife could get pregnant next month, I don’t know. A lot of stuff happens. I have no idea, you know.

Anything could happen?

Yeah. It’s easier to plan things at his age than it is at mine!

Since we’re looking forward to the Carnegie Hall tribute, I got to thinking about some of you other live highlights. The whole Zaire ’74 concert is such an iconic moment, and I’ve never heard your perspective of your own experience meeting Muhammad Ali and being there for that whole event. Do you have particular memories that stand out from that trip?

Well, I already had met him [Ali] before the trip, you know. I had known him and he had always been a nice, fun guy. It was interesting because you had a lot of characters, you had Don King—and nobody had ever heard of Don King before then. He’s got a very colorful background, you know. And then it was interesting watching people that normally wouldn’t be in that proximity to each other. You had Norman Mailer, BB King, and James Brown, you know. They normally wouldn’t be in the same space, but since we’re all staying at the same hotel, there was an interesting interaction there that normally wouldn’t take place. Because these people wouldn’t have access to each other, you know.

And then there was just the fact of where we were, you know. Everybody was forced to interact with each other because we’re all staying in this one hotel, we were on a continent that nobody knew a lot about. It was just an all-around interesting trip. I don’t think that’ll ever happen again, that many different kinds of people will be assembled in one place for that long. What does that say about the magic of Muhammad Ali? Nobody else that I know of in history has been able to gather those many different kinds of people around. George was there too, but let’s face it, it was about Ali and his charisma and magic. What’s the likelihood of somebody like Don King putting it together?

There was a lot of once-in-a-lifetime stuff. I remember standing at the middle of the place at rehearsal in the middle of the night and there were jazz guys like The Crusaders, there was James Brown, The Pointer Sisters, all kinds of people, and they had people like Stokely Carmichael just hanging out. That was the fun part of it. Two guys fighting each other in the middle of the night—I’ve been seeing that all my life. But the interesting thing was the theater around it…I didn’t stay for the fight, because it got postponed. For me, the experience was over anyway, because the interesting thing was the atmosphere around it. All those things.

Was that your first time on the continent of Africa?

Yep, that was my first time.

Were you able to get out of the hotel and see some of Zaire? I imagine, politically, it might have been tightly stage-managed as well, because of the high-profile nature of it.

I walked around a little bit, you know. I’m an old sailor, I spent nine years in the navy. I know how to get around places that are interesting to me. I was walking around in foreign countries when I was eighteen years old. There were things that were interesting—curiosity got me out and about. It’s not like I could rent a car and start driving around.

Was there anything that struck you from those impressions of Zaire, outside the circle of the event that was happening?

No, it was just another place with some other people. It was no different than being in any of the other places I had been. It was just checking out a different place with different people. And plus, you’d have to live there in order to get the full impact of the place. They know who you are and why you’re there, so there’s a festiveness around it and a certain business around it, so it’s like…I don’t think you could get the full force of the Philippines living on a navy base.

There’s a certain amount you can get out of just osmosis, but you’d have to live there and speak the language. Somebody once said, “you’re as many people as languages you speak.” Most people over there spoke French, and I don’t, so there was a certain “broken language communication,” let’s put it that way. It was one more place that I had been on a long list of places. I had been traveling since I was in the navy.

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It sounds like, of all those places, that LA feels like home these days? When people ask where you’re from, you say LA?

I’m from a lot of places. I’m from as many places as I’ve been. I live here because it works for me. It fits. I couldn’t live in the bayou or somewhere, because they don’t do what I do down there. It’d be pretty hard to run a publishing company from an alligator swamp.

That reminds me of another question—I know that you started out with Sussex Records and you must have signed around the same that an artist named Rodriguez was signed with them? Who’s become kind of a legend for the way that he disappeared and reappeared. Did you guys ever have any interaction while you were signed at Sussex?

Briefly, you know. I think when we played in Detroit, I saw him once. But it wasn’t like we had a relationship or anything. You probably know more about Rodriguez than I do. It was like ships passing in the night. That’s an interesting story—I saw the movie like you did, and it’s interesting that something like that could be that big in South Africa and not leak out to the rest of the world.

That says more about South Africa than it does Rodriguez. What kind of place must have that been, that something could become that huge in the country, and yet be so isolated that it didn’t leak? I think in Australia, it took hold a little bit. But there’s a lot of stories in that Rodriguez saga, a lot of stories. And that it would happen in a bizarre place like South Africa.

Photo Credit: GAB Archive/Redferns

I’m going to leave you with one more question, I know I’m pushing the limit of my time but I’m also curious…

Well, you’re getting the Questlove bonus here. But I’ve got to go pee, so…

 I’ll try to make it quick. I know that in the phase of your career, after you were at Sussex and not dealing with Columbia any longer, you collaborated a lot with a lot of jazz and fusion artists—Grover Washington, JrRalph MacDonald, who have also been a big influence on our generation. Did you find that at that phase of your career you were more interested in the kind of back-and-forth collaboration than straightforward storytelling?

No, it was just some guys I knew, and we hung out together a couple times. You’re talking about “Just the Two of Us”?

“Just the Two of Us,” and there was “Soul Shadows” with The Crusaders…

Yeah. Well, these are guys that called up and said: “Would you like to do something?” And sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t. So those are just things that happened just from being guys. If you’re in the environment, you bump into each other. I also did some stuff with Jimmy Buffet.

Was he also a personal friend that you just bumped into?

I met him through Ralph. I actually had two songs on a number one country album that Jimmy Buffet had, how about that? You were talking about my jazz connection, but you didn’t mention my country thing.

I just didn’t get to that yet!

Well, you better get to it, ’cause I told you I have to pee. I can’t hold it all day, brother.

OK, last last question—what would it take for you to have that kind of experience at this point in your life? To start a new collaboration and get in the studio again? You did say “Anything can happen” so…what would it take?

I don’t know. Probably the same thing—something would have to make my socks roll up and down. One thing that would help is if I could be half my age. Everything is not up to you, your personal decision. Biology and chronology—a lot of things have to do with that. Everything is not totally up to you. If it was, I’d be going around flirting with 20-year old girls at the moment. Certain things are not practical at certain times, no matter how much you want them to be. I always laugh when I see women my age in low cut dresses. That cleavage has used up its usefulness, as an enticer. So cover yourself, sweetie.

You mentioned that you’ve traveled a lot of places and had the opportunity to be at a lot of amazing moments. Do you have a bucket list or any regrets about things you’ve left undone?

I try to remember my pleasures and forget my nightmares. It’s not convenient to remember anything but the experiences that were most beneficial to you. I’m not always successful at it, but one of the convenient things about being this age is when people ask you stuff you don’t want to talk about, you just tell them you don’t remember.

Probably the most common answer to all the questions you can ask someone is “I really don’t care.” There should be some privileges with growing old, and part of the privilege of growing old is you don’t have to explain everything. My life is pretty much out there–people can look at it and draw their own conclusions. And some of the rumors are nice, they make you seem interesting.

The Okayplayer Interview: Bill Withers Speaks On Songwriting, Sampling & Legendary Concerts From Zaire To Carnegie Hall

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Edwin “STATS” Houghton is a noted music journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Okayplayer.com.

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