Bill Withers, the Navy veteran who died this year at age 81, was a most unlikely '70s soul music star. He wrote his own songs in a folk-influenced style and broke through at the moment when funk was dominating the R&B charts.
His Top 10 hits "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me" and "Use Me" have become standards and the Top 30 hit "Lovely Day" is all over television these days as the soundtrack to the Allstate commercial that features a girl rolling down the street wrapped in carpet.
Now he’s one of the highlights of a new DVD set called "The Soul of the Midnight Special." Appearing as the late-night music show's host on March 22, 1974, Withers performed "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me."
Bill joined the Navy at age 17 and served his country as an aircraft mechanic who installed toilets on airplanes. After his discharge, he took his skills to Douglas Aircraft and installed toilets on Boeing 747s. He also bought a guitar and began recording demos of his own songs, not finding success in music until after he turned 30.
When his record company crashed and his rights were scooped up by industry giant Columbia Records, Withers resisted the suggestions his label tried to offer. After a few years of struggle against their input, Withers walked away from his career. If he couldn't make music his way, he wasn't interested in playing the game.
Of course, the fact that his biggest hits have remained in endless radio rotation and have been licensed for the soundtracks of dozens of movies kept the royalties pouring in and let him live life his way.
Don't just take our word for it. Former SecDef Jim Mattis is also a huge fan and delivered a powerful tribute to Withers last month at a posthumous ceremony that awarded the singer the Navy's "Lone Sailor" award.
"I wish that I had served alongside Bill Withers, because the manhood he demonstrated was not the childish egocentric example we see too often in today's news cycles," Mattis said.
Let's not forget that "Lean on Me" has been a source of inspiration for essential workers during 2020's COVD-19 pandemic. The song has soundtracked countless homemade videos that pay tribute to the doctors, nurses, EMTs, retail workers, food workers and transport workers who kept the world turning during quarantine.
Check out these amazing 1974 “Midnight Special” performances.
In these performances featured in the new DVD set, Bill skips the flashy stage clothes that defined the music scene of the era and wears an ensemble that seems more like something dad would wear to a backyard barbecue. He's glad to be there to sing his songs but he doesn't have much time or use for any showbiz nonsense. He's a man there to do a job and he's going to make sure he delivers the goods.
"The Soul of the Midnight Special" is a 5-DVD set now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. There are over 70 live performances filmed between 1973-1976 in a 9.5 hour set. Other artists featured in the collection include Al Green, Chuck Berry, LaBelle, Curtis MayfieldRay Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
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