Born: July 4, 1938;

Died: March 30, 2020.

LEGENDARY American musician Bill Withers, who has died aged 81 from heart complications, confounded the music industry’s basic rules of existence; work hard on writing and/or performing for an immeasurable length of time, try and stretch success into infinity – and when you start to fade in the spotlight, spend the rest of your days trying to recover those glory days.

And it’s fair to say that Withers certainly believed himself to be a better, happier human being for having shaped his career his own way. “The business came to me in my 30s. I was socialised as a regular guy”, he once said. “I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”

William Harrison Withers Jnr grew up in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a small town about half as glamorous as it sounds. His father was a coal miner, his mother a maid. Withers was one of six children. His parents divorced when he was three years old. His father died 10 years later.

Music offered a release from grinding poverty. “It was mostly country music,” he remembered. “And there was music in church, and whatever they taught you at school. And then there was the old Frank Sinatra – Nat King Cole-genre type music. So whatever I could stand to listen to, I listened to.”

Nevertheless, it was poverty that saw Withers determined to leave Slab Fork as soon as he was able. At 17 he joined the Navy, with the plan to learn a trade and build a career. “My first goal was, I didn’t want to be a cook or a steward,” he once said. “So I went to aircraft-

mechanic school. I still had to prove to people that thought I was genetically inferior that I wasn’t too stupid to drain the oil out of an airplane.”

A career as a musician was never considered. Back on shore, the only music he would hear was in the nightclubs he visited, where he was “trying to meet girls.” He remained in the Navy for nine years but in 1965 he quit and moved to Los Angeles, where he became “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California.”

His career epiphany came about one night when he visited a club where the singer Lou Rawls was playing. He discovered that Rawls was being paid $2,000 for the gig. He didn’t even turn up on time yet women still flocked to him when he did arrive. Withers was earning $3 an hour at the time. He set off next day to a pawn shop and bought a guitar. He learned to write lyrics – they felt like poetry – and gave them a musical accompaniment.

While working daytime in factories he recorded demos through the night and they proved to be so powerful that he was signed to Sussex Records. Booker T Jones, of Booker T & the M Gs, was enlisted to produce Just As I Am, his debut album, which came out in 1971. Among its tracks was Ain’t No Sunshine, which won Withers, now the ripe old age of 33, his first Grammy for best R&B song, and would forever remain a classic.

A second album, Still Bill, was released in 1972, containing another Withers classic, Lean on Me. Live at Carnegie Hall (1973) followed. Meantime, his 1973 marriage to TV star Denise Nicholas failed after a year (he’d fallen in love, he said later, with the idea of marrying a Hollywood star).

He signed to Colombia Records and released his first album, Making Music, with them in 1975. But he clashed with executives at Columbia, illustrating his contempt for those he believed to be narrow-minded. (At one point, Columbia tried to have him record an Elvis song.)

Frustrated with the business, Withers did not record any more records after 1985, but much of his work has been re-released, such as Just the Two of Us and Lean on Me, and covered by a range of artists. His songs have also featured in such major films as Jerry Maguire, Jackie Brown, Notting Hill, The Bodyguard and American Beauty.

In 2009, Withers was profiled in the TV documentary Still Bill, which revealed a contented man showing no regrets about walking away from the music business. “When somebody asks, ‘What have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he said. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.” He added: “These days,” he says, “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”

He did not feel compelled to take up any of the numerous offers to tour: “Back where I’m from, people sit on their porch all day.” He certainly had a sharp sense of humour. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not,” he revealed. “I said to him, ‘Let me check.’”

His inspirational song, Lean On Me, has become an anthem during the coronavirus outbreak, sung by schoolchildren across the world in impromptu balcony renditions.

The relaxed, reluctant star would have loved that. Bill Withers is survived by his second wife, Marcia, and their two children, Todd and Kori.