The soul singer-songwriter, known for his signature song “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” died Wednesday morning after being hospitalized since September due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.
Withers’ death came just days after he performed at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony honoring Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan and Carole King.
Born William Edward Kendall Jr., Withers grew up poor in Detroit, where he began playing piano at age 5. His parents divorced when he was 10, and he moved to Los Angeles to live with his mother.
He signed with Motown Records in 1967, releasing his debut album Just As I Am in 1968. His second LP, 1972’s A Place In The Sun, became one of the label’s biggest sellers.
In 1974, Withers won four Grammy Awards for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance (“Lean On Me”), Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals (“Lovely Day”), Best Soul Song (“Just As I Am”) and Best Album Of Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or Television Show (“Still Bill”).
His 1975 hit single “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Withers continued recording into the 1990s, including albums such as 1994’s Still Bill and 1998’s Love Can Build A Bridge.
Withers was born into poverty in a coal mining town called Slab Fork, West Virginian, where he grew up alongside his five siblings. His father died when he was young, and his mother worked long hours to support her family. She later married another man, and moved the entire family to Chicago, Illinois, in 1950. After living there for three years, she divorced him and returned to Slab Fork.
John David Withers was born in San Diego, California, on June 18, 1944, the son of John David Sr., a salesman, and his wife, Mary Ann (née Brown). After graduating from high school in 1962, he joined the United States Navy in 1964, where he served for three years. While serving in the Navy, he attended college part-time and played guitar in a band called the Youngbloods. In 1967, he relocated to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a musical career. There, he met bassist Leon Russell, whom he had known since childhood. Together, they formed the duo John David & Leon, which changed its name to Leon Russell & the Shondells in 1968. They recorded their debut album, Walk Don’t Run, in 1969.
In 1970, Withers moved into a house owned by Russell’s parents. Russell later described him as “a quiet guy,” adding that ” didn’t drink or do drugs.” During this period, Withers became friends with Lenny Waronker, another member of the Beach Boys’ touring group. In 1971, he married actress/model Pat Carroll, and the couple divorced in 1976. Later that same year, he began dating singer Carly Simon. Their relationship lasted until 1982; she later wrote
Withers began playing guitar around age 14, and he had already begun writing songs at age 16. He learned how to play the instrument while in high school, where he met guitarist and songwriter Joe Walsh, whom he later collaborated with on several projects. In 1975, Withers joined the band Chicago, where he played rhythm guitar for three years, before being replaced by lead guitarist Lee Loughnane. During his tenure with Chicago, Withers wrote “Harder to Say Goodbye,” one of the group’s biggest hits. After Loughnane left the band in 1978, Withers became the band’s permanent lead guitarist. Withers’ musical style changed considerably during his time with Chicago, moving away from blues rock towards pop music. Withers contributed to the band’s third studio album, Chicago XIV, producing five tracks and co-writing four others. Withers also performed backing vocals on the track “If You Leave Me Now.”
In 1981, Withers formed his own band, Big Al & the Kids Table, and recorded two albums with it, including 1982’s I Can’t Turn Around and 1983’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Withers produced both records, along with contributing guitars and keyboards. His next project was a collaboration with Joe Walsh, titled The Night We Called It a Day. Released in 1984, the album included a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and a duet with Carly Simon on “I’m Not That Girl”.
Withers’s demo tape was auditioned favorably in January 1970 by Clarence “Lonnie” Avant, owner of the Sussex label. Avant agreed to sign him immediately and assign former Stax Records stalwarts Booker T. and Steve Cropper to produce his debut album.
Four three-hour sessions produced the album The Exciting Charles Witherspoon, released in October 1971. This album became a hit, and Withers toured with a band assembled from musicians from the Watts 103rd Street rhythm section. He won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance for “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.”
– Withers had been recording since 1968 and had worked with producers such as Al Jackson Jr., Jimmy Webb, and Jerry Wexler.
– He was a member of the Philadelphia soul group the Delfonics from 1967 to 1969.
– His second album, 1972’s I’m Still Waiting, contained the single “I’ll Be Around,” which reached the Top 10.
– Witherspoon sold over one million copies.
– Wither’s third album, 1973’s Got To Find Me Someone, included the hits “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “You’re Gonna Lose Your Good Thing”.
Withers had been recording at Sussex since 1968, when he left Atlantic Records. He recorded his debut album there in 1969. His second album, 1972’s,
was produced by Jerry Wexler, who later became president of Atlantic Records.
In 1973, Withers joined Columbia Records, where he remained until joining Warner Bros. Records in 1978. He returned to Columbia in 1983.
Withers continued to perform into the 1990s. He performed at the 1991 Concert For New York City, held in Central Park, and he played at the 1992 inauguration of President George H. W. Bush. He also toured internationally with a band called The Big Four.
In 1993, Withers recorded the soundtrack for the film A Low Down Dirty Shame, starring Ray Liotta and Jamie Foxx. His song “Lovely Day” became one of the film’s most popular tracks.
At the 30th Annual Grammy Award ceremony in 1988, Witherspoon won the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for “Lean On Me”.
This was Withers’s eighth Grammy nomination and second win.
The following year, Withers produced four songs for the Broadway musical adaptation of Hair, including “Aquarius”, “I Can’t Change It”, “If I Were Your Woman” and “What Now My Love?”.
Withers contributed two songs (“Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “She’s About a Mover”) to 10
He was nominated for another Grammy award in 1994 for “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”.