We wanted to use the Multimedia space in this issue to highlight an Appalachian-born musician whose career moved beyond the mountains but whose origins included coal culture in southern West Virginia. William Harrison “Bill” Withers, Jr., the American singer-songwriter and musician, best known for his mega-hits like “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two of Us,” was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia on July 4, 1938.
Raised in nearby Beckley, he was the youngest of six children. His father was a miner who died when Withers was 13 years old. At age 18, Withers joined the Navy and served until 1965. He moved to Los Angeles and worked assembly-line jobs while making demo records and playing in clubs. When “Ain’t No Sunshine” debuted in 1971, he refused to leave his factory job right away, believing the music industry was “too fickle.”
Bill Withers has won three Grammy Awards, and his music has been covered and sampled by scores of artists—everyone from Tupac Shakur to Liza Minnelli. His music has been used in dozens of films and television shows, and his many honors include winning two NAACP Image Awards and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
We were reminded of his Appalachian roots when we recently rediscovered this clip from a 1973 BBC Concert, where he sings one of his popular major hits, “Grandma’s Hands.”