How did you end up singing and songwriting?
If that’s what you are [a singer], that’s what you are. It’s when you act on it that
makes a difference. I always knew since I was a little boy that I could sing. It’s
like a person who can run really fast. Whether they play a sport or not, it’s an
What were your influences, musically?
If you grew up in West Virginia, you heard what was on the radio, which was mostly
country music. Then you heard what came out of people’s houses, which were gospel,
blues and Frank Sinatra. So it was an amalgamation of stuff, a hybrid of influences.
Everything influences you. One time I was in Oakland in the Navy and Lou Rawls
was working there. One night he came in late and the bartender was pacing back
and forth and said, “I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t show up on
time.” I thought, “Wait a minute. You can make two grand doing that?” That influenced
How prevalent was the issue of race throughout your career?
My mother bought a house across the railroad tracks. Two black families lived on
that side. I got a good look at the black side and the white side and used to laugh
because they didn’t know how similar they were. First of all, they all worked in
It’s always been a complex thing with me. I’ve been poor and black, middle class
and black, and wealthy and black. I’m always aware I’m black. But it’s like stuttering.
I was never determined to let that define me.
The bottom line is you have to come up with your own individual survival mechanism.
As a kid, we couldn’t go in swimming pools. So we learned to swim in the creek.
In the ’50s, I had to drive around in the middle of the night in Alabama. It’s
a weird feeling, but you gotta go.
Tomorrow’s coming. And you got to figure out a way to do tomorrow.
I remember living in Beverly Hills when it was common for someone to come up to the
gate and ask, “Is the owner home?” You have fun with that. I’d say, ‘He’ll be here
tomorrow.” Or tell them to kiss my a**.
A lot of people become angry and self-destructive. There’s not a moment that I
walk around and I’m not aware that I’m black. So I make adjustments. It doesn’t
dictate everything to me. You learn how to make your life work. That’s it.
Withers today superimposed over his 1974 album "+'Justments" (ALBUM ART COURTESY
OF SONY MUSIC. ILLUSTRATION BY ELIZABETH FORD)
Was there a single moment when you thought to yourself, “I’ve made it?”
It’s not that it hits you that you had some success. The thing is, you should be
surprised if you didn’t. Nobody tries to do something, like sports or music, if
they don’t think they can do it.
After I made my first record, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was released as a B-side to “Harlem.”
But disc jockeys turned it over and played “Ain’t No Sunshine” instead and it became
a huge hit. There’s a lot of happenstance. But you don’t wander into this. You
have to be there on purpose.
You held onto your day job for a while even after “Ain’t No Sunshine” hit it big.
[At the time, Withers worked as an aircraft assembler. The cover of his debut
album “Just as I am” shows him at his job holding his lunch pail.]
Just in case. I thought the music business was a fickle industry. I was in my 30s.
A lot of people get one hit and they go away. To go there, stay there and have
people remember you 40 years later, that’s intense. The odds ain’t too good.
I used to go on tour with Donny Hathaway, a great artist. Every night before we’d
go on stage, he said, “You better bring it tonight brother because I’m coming.”
This business is a “bring it” situation. People are always asking what inspires
you when you’re performing or are like, “Were you thinking about your grandmother?”
Nah, you just gotta want some of this.
You hear a lot of people saying, “Well, you gotta listen to my niece” or “I know
a guy that’s got a nice voice.” So what? This is a worldwide competition. It’s
not your local, high school talent show. If you want a break, you make a break.
You go get it.
Your music has been heard regularly on movies, TV shows and commercials through
the years. What goes through your mind every time you hear one of your songs
in pop culture?
It’s flattering. It’s always nice when somebody lets you know that you did OK.
But you can’t be on both the doing and receiving side. You can’t be your own audience.
Once it’s done, you move on.
But people finally got me. When I was out there, it was contemporary and no one
made that much of a fuss over it. I wasn’t socialized as a musician. I learned
to live another way. I learned to live as a sailor, an aircraft mechanic, a factory
worker, all those things had their own elements of pleasure.
With my music, it was a gradual acceptance over time. People are being nicer to
me now than they ever were [laughter]. I joked with my daughter the other day that
this must be my farewell tour. I have people like Justin Timberlake and John Mayer
inviting me to concerts. They treat me very nice. I’m like this old guy who didn’t