Hall of Fame soul singer Bill Withers, whose work has been a pop culture staple for decades, has passed away. He was 81. Withers, whose songs have appeared in everything from Muppets Tonight to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, passed away due to complications from heart disease. During his relatively short career, Withers wrote songs that would be performed, covered, and celebrated for generations. His song “Lean On Me” was played at the inaugurations of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Withers, who is credited as having played himself in an episode of Criminal Minds, has provided the soundtrack for countless celebrations as well as film and TV literally right up to the present day, where his songs have appeared in shows like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Withers passed away on Monday in Los Angeles, his family confirmed. Besides “Lean on Me,” he had hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Grandma’s Hands.”
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father,” his family said in a statement to the Associated Press. “A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other. As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
“He’s the last African-American Everyman,” Questlove told Rolling Stone during an interview in 2015. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
“We lost a giant of songwriting today,” ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams said in a statement. “Bill Withers’ songs are among the most treasured and profound in the American songbook — universal in the way they touch people all over the world, transcending genre and generation. He was a beautiful man with a stunning sense of humor and a gift for truth.”
Born in 1938, Withers served in the Navy beginning at age 17. After six years in the service and several more doing non-entertainment work, Withers released his first album in 1971. He would go on to win Grammy Awards three times — for “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just the Two of Us,” and a songwriting award for “Lean On Me” — and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 by Stevie Wonder. A 2009 film about his life, Still Bill, is available