By BLAIR JACKSON
Sad news that the great R&B singer-songwriter Bill Withers has passed away at the age of 81. The West Virginia native made a big impact during his relatively brief 15-year career between 1970-1985. (He stopped recording and performing after that.) Among his hits were “Lean on Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “You,” “Let Us love, “The Same Laugh That Made Me Laugh,” and the two songs presented here, the timeless ballad “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and the ultra-funky “Use Me.” His songs were simple, yet so powerful. Truly a unique voice and talent!
I was lucky enough to see Withers perform once, when he headlined the Berkeley Jazz Festival on May 17, 1974, at the Greek Theater on the UC Berkeley campus. What a crazy night: After superb sets by pianist Ahmed Jamal, saxophonist Gary Bartz, and guitarist Larry Coryell—all well-received—Withers and his band came out and it was practically pandemonium—actual screams from a lot of the women in the place! The crowd hung on every word he sang, exhorted him at every turn, followed every song with rapturous cheers. And though his placement at the top the bill of a jazz festival might have raised an eyebrow or two, his delivery, his songs, and his vibe fit into the night’s lineup perfectly, and it was instantly clear who the overwhelmingly African American crowd had come to see.
(A weird footnote to this: The show took place while the famous Symbionese Liberation Army shootout with police in Los Angeles was taking place, and during Withers’ set, word raced audibly through the crowd that SLA-convert Patty Hearst had been killed in the inferno that engulfed the SLA’s L.A. safe-house during the shootout. (She wasn’t, but six members of the revolutionary group, including their leader, Cinque, were.) Hearst was a student at UC Berkeley at the time (she was in my large-group art history class, I learned after her kidnapping) and the full name of the venue where Withers brought down the house that night: the Hearst Greek Theater.)