My first instinct when I heard that Bill Withers had died was that I really wanted to listen to “Lovely Day.” Not because it was a Bill Withers song — although that was probably part of it — but because when I need cheering up, “Lovely Day” is one of my go-to songs.
Released in 1977, “Lovely Day” remains ubiquitous in the culture. It’s used as a bumper on HGTV, it’s featured in movies all the time, and it’s a staple on oldies and easy-listening stations. Often, overplayed songs turn to mush in the brain — they become anonymous aural wallpaper that lose their ability to resonate because they’ve been reduced to jingle fodder. Remarkably, “Lovely Day” hasn’t — and neither have Withers’ other enduring hits. There are many ways to memorialize this underrated giant of 1970s R&B, but one of his legacies is that not only could he write indelible radio tunes, he managed to summon up some of our core human experiences in just a few minutes. Withers didn’t have the wealth of hits that Al Green, Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder did, but every one mattered. However you were feeling, he had a perfect song for that occasion — songs we’re still leaning on all these years later.
Withers, who passed away Monday at the age of 81, didn’t have the longest of careers. He released seven albums in the 1970s, including the acclaimed Still Bill and Menagerie, had a smash with “Just the Two of Us” in 1981 and then never hit the Top 40 again. But he knew he’d left his mark. “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in,” he said in 2015. “I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” Largely turning his back on the music industry after his heyday, he joked in that same interview that people constantly assumed that he had died already. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he said, laughing.
The hits were what gave him premature immortality. The first of the bunch was “Ain’t No Sunshine,” inspired by him watching the somber alcoholism love story Days of Wine and Roses and thinking about that moment when you realize that you let someone great go. As much a song as it is a mood, “Ain’t No Sunshine” finds Withers ruminating on a lover who takes the joy away from his life when she’s gone. The details are vague — and the track only lasts two minutes — but that feeling of perpetual longing is so strong that “Ain’t No Sunshine” feels a lot longer, like a despondent vibe you can’t shake. Or maybe the song feels longer because anybody who plays “Ain’t No Sunshine” for comfort during their own romantic heartbreak immediately starts it over again because they want to stay in that mental space. The song articulates its unresolved, despairing atmosphere so succinctly that it became the soundtrack for a broken heart.
His next massive hit was his biggest. “Lean on Me” was a love song, but not a romantic one — it’s about being there in times of trouble for those who really need it. “Romantic love you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically,” Withers once said. “The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.”
A comforting piano ballad with gospel roots, “Lean on Me” has become one of those songs, like “Let It Be” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” that always pops up during a crisis. In fact, as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened, Withers’ No. 1 hit has become an unofficial anthem of hope and community, inspiring viral videos of everyday people singing the song to make each other feel better. That universal, humanist sentiment has made it endlessly covered — and occasionally parodied, like in a Simpsons episode in which soulless filmmakers return to Hollywood after enduring Springfield’s terrible residents, welcomed home with open arms to strains of “Lean on Me.” But the song has resisted the potential everybody-hurts clichés associated with its message. When times are tough, people need “Lean on Me.”
Not that Withers always wrote in an uplifting or emotional vein. Hot on the heels of “Lean on Me,” he returned with the laidback funk of “Use Me,” a song about knowing you’re in a terrible relationship but not caring because the sex is amazing.
Feel it’s their appointed duty
They keep trying to tell me
All you want to do is use me
But my answer, yeah, to all that “use me” stuff
Is I want to spread the news
That if it feels this good getting used
Oh, you just keep on using me
Until you use me up
As was often the case, Withers gave us just the bare outlines of a narrative, sketching a powerfully evocative storyline but letting the listener fill in the blanks with his own experience. In “Use Me,” we learn that his lady insults him in public and that his guy friends are tired of her walking all over him. But the narrator doesn’t mind: “Baby baby baby baby, when you love me I can’t get enough.”
What man hasn’t been in that position at some point? And how many of us had as good a comeback to our buddies as the guy in “Use Me” does? There have been plenty of “You treat me badly, honey” songs, but few have this edge, this wry acknowledgement that, in the end, we put up with the abuse because it’s part of the turn-on.
But sometimes, you just want the perfect romantic song. Withers’ chart run ended with “Just the Two of Us,” which he recorded with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. The most smooth-jazz-y of his smashes, “Just the Two of Us” couldn’t be simpler: You and me are all that matters. Proudly just on this side of saccharine, the song’s mushy sentiment is mitigated by the grit in Withers’ voice and the genuineness of his delivery. Ultimately, it’s a song about pushing past an unspecified sadness and recognizing that now is all we have…
We look for love, no time for tears
Wasted water’s all that is
And it don’t make no flowers grow
Good things might come to those who wait
Not for those who wait too late
We gotta go for all we know
No wonder it’s a constant at weddings. Will Smith turned “Just the Two of Us” into a corny tribute to his relationship with his son — which was then mocked by Dr. Evil and Mini-Me in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me — but the unembarrassed emotionality of Withers’ original cannot be diluted. It’s a song about true love for those willing to believe in it.
But I’ll start where I began, with “Lovely Day.” Because, like so many of Withers’ best songs, it shows up a lot in mass media, I get annoyed when it’s used poorly. (Glooming onto “Lovely Day” isn’t gonna make me like you, The Secret Life of Pets.) But, also like so many of Withers’ hits, it withstands those associations — it still feels like it’s mine, and anyone’s who listens to it. It’s the way that the bass line slowly emerges at the beginning of the track, and then those strings pop in, mimicking the sensation of a sunrise. And then Withers’ warmest vocal kicks in:
When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day
A lovely day
Withers’ holds onto “day,” stretching it out like a force field that can protect us from all of life’s worries. “Lovely Day” is a great song to listen to when you wake up in the morning — but, honestly, it sounds fantastic whenever you put it on. In four minutes, Withers conjured up what optimism feels like — a building wave of sunshine and gorgeous melody that taps into the stubborn hope we hold onto that, maybe just maybe, it’s gonna be a lovely day.
Sometimes, that’s what you need. Other times, you want a little comfort. Or maybe you just want to sit in your feelings after you’ve been dumped. Or maybe you’d like to be reminded just how sexy your partner is, no matter how much of a mess the relationship is. This was Bill Withers’ gift to the world — he sang what we were all feeling, encapsulating emotions in ways we didn’t know how.
But now we do, thanks to him, and we’ll have that forever.