One of my unexpected pleasures this week was was catching up with Still Bill, a documentary about the singer Bill Withers which was released in 2009 shown on BBC4 a few weeks ago. When I first heard Withers’ songs, I labelled him as a bit of an MOR cocktail singer (a bit like Johnny Mathis, say) and it took a friend and colleague who knew his black music, Paul McCrea, to put me right on that. All the same, I had no great expectations of the documentary, beyond a mild surprise that it ran to 75 minutes, and when I started watching it I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. (If you’re still not sure who I’m talking about, you’ll know his songs – ‘Lean On Me‘, ‘Use Me‘, ‘Grandma’s Hands‘ (covered by Gil Scott-Heron), ‘Lovely Day‘, ‘Just The Two Of Us‘, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine‘.)
It turns out that he is still alive – he turned 70 while the film was being made – and he last recorded in 1985, because he decided he had had enough enough of the music business and wanted to be a father to his young family.
The picture the film painted of Withers, and the reason it was so memorable that I ended up watching it twice (I had’t been very attentive the first time), was of a man who was both grounded and self-reflective, two qualities that obviously reinforce each other. He didn’t start in the music business until he was 32, after serving in the Navy and working in California fitting toilets into 747s, and although this late success could have made him desperate for success, it seemed instead to have given him the confidence to be his own person, respectful of the people he had worked with before he was famous. He’s been married to his wife, Marcia, for 35 years.
The film takes him back to Slap Fork, West Virginia, where he grew up in a coal camp (‘Grandma’s Hands’ is autobiographical), and follows him to a tribute concert to raise money for an American foundation which supports stammerers – a condition Withers suffered from as a child. He was visibly affected when he went to meet some of the kids at the foundation afterwards, as meeting them clearly dragged him back into a childhood that wasn’t entirely happy. But it’s built about a long interview, in which he tells his story. He clearly has little time for the music industry (early on in the film he recounts scathingly an A&R man coming up with the idea that he should cover ‘In The Ghetto’), and talks about the way in which the music industry thinks in formulas which he was lucky to escape precisely because he was a late starter.
But what comes through is a deep sense of humanity and respect for people who haven’t had his good fortune. Half way through, he talks about some advice he gives to his (now adult) kids:
‘One of the things I also tell my kids is that it’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through Alright, and when you get to Alright, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re going to go.’