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We all need somebody to lean on right about now.

When Lewis Grizzard was a renowned columnist at the Atlanta Constitution and I was holding down the obit desk there, he wrote a column about Elvis that said something like "If Elvis was 'country,' then my butt is a typewriter.'"

That's how I feel about Bill Withers: if Bill Withers was rhythm & blues, then my butt is an IBM Selectric or, for anyone born this millennium, an Apple Macbook Pro.

Wherever there's a jukebox or radio, music lovers will forever be playing and paying homage to Withers, the singer/songwriter who died recently at age 81.

He is deserving of every good thing said about him, but mark my words: too many of the encominiums about him will reflexively call him an R&B singer.

They're wrong. "Still Bill" - they called him that either because he barely moved except to gently rock while strumming his guitar or because he refused to allow the predatory music industry to change him - was a folk singer.

Now, I love R&B, and if I could come back in another life as anybody it would be as Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, but it's just wrong to put that label on Withers. He hit the charts in 1971 as part of the same wave of singer-songwriters as Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Richie Havens and Judy Collins.

Withers' talent was so transcendent that even Rolling Stone magazine - which hardly ever gets anything right when ranking music - had to acknowledged his brilliance: Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall made the magazine's list of top 50 live albums of all time.

How clueless is Rolling Stone? It ranked My Girl by The Temptations at No. 83 on its list of top 500 songs of all time, as if there are really 82 songs better or more influential than that one.

(When you listen to the prelude to Grandma's Hands on the live album in which Still Bill talks about the preacher getting the spirit and hitting himself all upside the head with the drum sticks, you'll understand why.)

Of course, the labels are unimportant anyway. As Duke Ellington said, there are only two types of music: good and bad.

And Withers made nothing but good music.

Same with John Prine. He died at 73 of Covid-19 days after Withers, and his music, too, defied easy description.

Prine's music has been called country, folk, country-folk, Americana. The best description of it you'll ever hear, though, is a line from his song Souvenirs. He was, The Washington Post wrote in its obituary, "the bard of 'broken hearts and dirty windows.'"

Withers composed songs in his head while working his day job installing toilet seats on airplanes; Prine wrote his during breaks as a mailman.

Right now, when many are separated from and untouched by loved ones because of medical necessity, we could sure use some Bill Withers and John Prine. Just don't play Prine's Hello In There when you're alone at midnight. It won't just touch you: it will reach in and yank your heart string near about plumb out of your chest if you hear it at the wrong - right? - time. it's a song about loneliness in old people and, like the lyrics of many of Prine's songs, it'll stop you in your tracks and make you have to catch your breath.

As an L.A. Times writer noted, Withers wrote a song - I Can't Write Lefthanded - about a Vietnam vet who returns from the war with one arm, and Prine wrote one - Sam Stone - about a heroin-addicted Vietnam vet with a hole in his arm "where all the money goes."


Whatever the world calls Withers' music, it's likely that nobody would be debating in which genre it belongs had it not been for a man from Climax, N.C. That's a little bitty town down around Greensboro.

Clarence Avant, the subject of a Netflix documentary you'll love called Black Godfather, was president of the independent record label Sussex when Withers, a Navy vet who had never sang professionally, entered his office. As Avant recalled their first meeting in an interview, "When he came in he said he'd been to four or five other labels, and he said 'I guess I'll get the same answer from you.'

"I said 'We'll have to wait and see. I just kept listening to Grandma's Hands and Lean on Me... You didn't hear many people talking about their grandmothers... All of those things just resonated with me and I said 'Wow, this guy's got it.'"

The best description of Bill Withers was probably given by Withers himself in a 2015 interview I watched: "Some people are just spectacular," he said. "They look great, come out and dance and they excite everybody. I'm this black guy coming out with an acoustic guitar and sitting on a chair."

Yeah, but it's what he did with that guitar once he sat in that chair that made all the difference.

Here's a tip: don't try to categorize Prine and Withers - Just listen and enjoy, because right about now, we could all use somebody to lean on or to tell us what's on the other side of those dirty windows.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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