The Okayplayer Interview: Bill Withers Speaks On Songwriting, Sampling & Legendary Concerts From Zaire To Carnegie Hall
Photos courtesy of Sony Records.
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–and wrote “Ain’t No Sunshine” on on 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 this Thursday, October 1st with a Carnegie Hall Tribute to his music, featuring the likes of
D’Angelo,(having sadly removed himself from the evening’s proceedings due to illness) 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 including 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 troubador’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:
OKP: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Have you been doing a lot of these?
OKP: 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.
BW: Oh, I do interviews, it’s just that nobody wants to talk to me. I’m not that interesting.
OKP: 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…
BW: 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.
OKP: Were you familiar with most of the artists that were selected for the bill?
BW: Of course. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t tell you [laughs]. Yeah, most of them I’ve had personal interactions with.
OKP: 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?
BW:Yeah, you know. They’re very nice people, and nice of them to do that. I’m surprised they even know who I am.
OKP: 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?