WHEN William Harrison Withers Jr, otherwise known as Bill Withers to his legion of fans across the world, died on March 30 this year, the world was poorer for having lost him. Culturally speaking, his compositions are arguably among some of the music world’s most enduring and life-affirming contributions.
Withers penned Lean On Me and Lovely Day, among several hits which were re-recorded and sampled by a host of other musicians across generations.
Lean on Me, for example, was recorded by the likes of Club Nouveau and Michael Bolton. Their versions enjoyed runaway success on Billboard, topping the charts. There were to be other songs by the folksy and demure singer-songwriter who seemed largely unaffected by the trappings of showbiz. Will Smith’s interpretation of Just The Two Of Us, another Withers standard, particularly stood out and introduced a new generation of music lovers to the everlasting quality of Withers’ message and melody.
The video of Smith’s song depicted him with his then six or seven-year-old son Trey, in the process serving a powerful image of the responsible black father in the American household. Such imagery would have made Withers a proud man, an exposition of the powerful impact of his work on the popular imagination.
Withers had a career largely devoid of scandal and snagged three Grammy Awards and six nominations. He was born on July 4, 1938 in West Virginia, United States and his mark on soul and rhythm and blues is as indelible as the best of them.
It is no surprise then that subsequent to his death announcement on April 3, Billboard has reported that Withers’ music is doing very well. The streams and sales of his music are reported to have gained “in great numbers”, citing Nielsen Music/MRC data.
The report says that between April 3 and 5 alone, his sales totalled over 22 million on-demand streams for both audio and video, up from 2,5 million between March 31 and April 2.
Withers is not the only icon to die in the last few weeks. Kenny Rogers, country music legend, whose crossover to pop was a roaring success, also died after a long and illustrious career which spawned hits like the 1978 groundbreaker The Gambler and Islands In The Stream, alongside Dolly Parton and penned by Barry Gibb of the famous Bee Gees.
Rogers passed away on March 20 and his passing may have slipped the notice of several of his fans because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. His death is also a sad loss for music fans that nonetheless will be grateful for the huge catalogue he crafted in his raspy, broken glass voice.