Some people can put on a great show without moving at all. Roy Orbison could stand behind those sunglasses like a wax museum sculpture and command the attention of thousands. Miles Davis didn’t even have to face forward when he was performing. But the king of stoicism was Bill Withers. He spent the majority of his time on stage without even a guitar strap, sitting on a bar stool, letting his songs put on the show for him.
And the way he played imitated the way he lived. Unlike most musicians Withers didn’t start making music until he was in his early thirties. By the time he put together the money to record his first demo he had already overcome a crippling stuttering habit, served in the Navy for almost a decade and worked for the Douglass Aircraft Corporation (making toilets). Inan interview from his early career the audience laughs at his old day job, but he just smiles and says it was a pretty good gig.
For the next ten years he had a thousand or so more good gigs. He recorded a few great albums and a few really good ones while keeping true to his unique aesthetic and point of view. After playing the Thrilla in Manilaconcert, touring the world and collecting a few Grammies you could say he had come a long way from his hometown of Slabfork, West Virginia.
After a career like this most artists would keep running their success into the ground. They’d squeeze back into the leisure suits or their spandex pants and try to dredge up the feelings they had twenty or thirty years ago. You can see that Mick Jagger still remembers the moves and can imitate himself pretty well, but an old folks home ain’t no place for a street fighting man. Instead, Withers started a family and settled down to a quiet lifestyle, raising his kids and growing old.
It’s not the kind of happy ending most folks would look for. We don’t like to see the people who inspired us so much stop doing what we’ve come to love them for. But if you asked Mr. Withers what he thought about his music career he’d probably just smile and say it was a pretty good gig.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org