Here at Melodics, we believe it’s never too late to get started on the journey of learning music. We also know that when you start learning music later in life, it’s easy to feel discouraged by what you need to catch up on or frustrated with your progress.
Today, we’re sharing a story with you about someone who came to music later in life, pushed through discouragement, and changed the sound of popular music.
“There are some very happy people who top out playing in the lobby at holiday inns. But the they’re playing music, and they’re happy… So it’s supposed to make you happy. Don’t value your gift according to where you fall on the scale of ‘commercial’, ‘professionalism’: enjoy it! If you can lock yourself up in your closet and just groove, don’t cheat yourself out of that!.”
— Bill Withers
When the great American soul man Bill Withers released his signature song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ in 1971, he was an unknown 31-year-old singer-songwriter and musician who worked a nine-to-five job assembling toilets for an aircraft parts company in Southern California. That year, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ ascended into the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart before becoming the first of three gold records in the US for Bill.
Even as his star rose, Bill initially refused to give up his day job, to the extent where the cover of his debut album, Just As I Am, was shot at his workplace on a lunch break. As ‘Ain’t No Sunshine was followed by ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On me’, Bill became a ubiquitous star within the great pantheon of American music. Seemingly overnight, he was the toast of the country.
In reality, Bill was anything but an overnight success, and actually, coming to music later in life became a source of strength for him. By the time he bought his first guitar in his late 20s, Bill had spent just under a decade serving with the United States Navy. He left school at 17 because of a chronic stutter which left him withdrawn and socially disconnected. In the navy, Bill received speech therapy, which built his self-confidence.
Growing up as an outsider gave him a sharp observational eye, and coming to music at an older age gave him time to think about what really needed to be said in songs. In 1967, he garnered his first opportunity to show off his skills through releasing a single titled ‘Three Nights And A Morning’ through the New York-based Lotus label. Although the single was produced and arranged by the great Mort Garson, it sank without a trace at the time.
Undeterred, Bill continued performing in nightclubs around Los Angeles, writing songs and recording demo tapes with money earned from daytime assembly jobs at IBM, Ford and Douglas Aircraft Corporation. In 1970, Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records, heard one of Bill’s tapes and signed him up for the first of three albums through the label, Just As I Am (crediting none other than greats Stephen Stills, Booker T Jones, Jim Keltner, Al Jackson Jr., Bobbye Porter in musical personnel).
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ turned nostalgia for something that was hurting you into a top ten hit, and ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On Me’ placed affection for family and friends on an equal footing to romantic love. Song by song, Bill drew from his life experience and observations to establish a new emotional vocabulary for popular American music. If he had started writing music earlier or hadn’t had challenges to overcome first, Bill wouldn’t have had as deep a wellspring to draw from as a songwriter and musician.
The story of the first stage of his career is a telling reminder that it’s never too late to start pursuing something you love, and actually, if you’re willing to work at it, starting later can be a deep and enduring source of strength.
Bill Withers left the public eye just as he arrived: quickly, and on his own terms. “The business came to me in my 30s. I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me… When somebody asks ‘what have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he reflected in 2003. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.”
“So if you feel like you have the gift, and you want to find out. Make yourself available, and the world will let you know”
— Bill Withers