Even if “Lean On Me” has been played a billion times, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great song. And even though Bill Withers basically retired from music in 1985, the fact that he’s a great songwriter remains.
Aside from the numerous Grammys Withers has won since his retirement (thanks to re-recordings and samples taken from his songs), little news has come from the Withers camp — until now. On May 11, filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack released “Still Bill,” a documentary about their quest to track him down.
Little was known about Withers since he’d left the business of music behind, and his music, which includes the classics “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean On Me”, and “Just the Two of Us”, had left its mark on the world…But [Baker and Vlack] soon found that access to Withers was not freely granted, and that many doors would open, only to slam back shut.
Then things changed. His door cracked slightly open. First, a four-hour interview. Then a trip to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, the place to which he swore he’d never return. Four hours became forty. Forty is now three hundred hours, filmed over two years—a personal journey into the life of a complex, fascinating, and profound man.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Withers has lived a simple life, raising his children with his wife in Los Angeles. His son is just starting law school; his daughter, whose own dreams of being a singer and songwriter have been overshadowed by the legend of her father, has started to come out of her shell with a clear and resonant voice. Withers nurtures them both, as his grandmother nurtured him. And when Dr. Cornel West asks him what he’d like his legacy to be, the answer lies with them.
I first heard about this documentary on NPR. If you have the inclination, you should check out their profile of Still Bill — it’s a great listen. Otherwise, just sit back and watch this excellent live rendition of his criminally underappreciated song “Grandma’s Hands.”