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You, too, may be an accidental Bill Withers fan

67-year-old legend has made a permanent mark on music
/ Source: The Associated Press

You might be a Bill Withers fan without realizing it.

If you ever grooved to Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us,” sang along with “Lean On Me” or thought to yourself, “Ain’t No Sunshine” when she’s gone, you know Withers’ timeless musical touch.

Artists who have covered his songs read like a who’s who of pop music: Sting, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones, among others. Withers’ work has been heard in more than 50 films and TV shows, a dozen commercials and as samples in countless rap tunes.

The 67-year-old singer-songwriter, whose hits also include “Use Me” and “Lovely Day,” will be honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Monday for his musical contributions.

“If you stick around long enough, eventually somebody’s going to give you something,” Withers joked.

He insists there’s nothing too special about him. Everyone likes to sing, he said. Everyone likes music. And he can’t really play guitar or piano.

“I just was able to plunk around with them enough to write some songs,” he said.

Withers talked with The Associated Press about the mystery of life and the magic of music.

AP: What kind of music are you making now?

Withers: The last music that I did was I wrote some stuff for and with Jimmy Buffett for his “License to Chill” album. That was fun because it was a country album actually.

AP: Your songs have been covered by artists from every genre. What’s it like to hear them interpret your work?

Withers: Well, there are only two reactions you could have: You could like it or not like it. I appreciate when somebody does that because it’s not something that you wouldn’t take for granted or expect. I appreciate that people find that useful to them.

AP: What about all the movies and TV shows?

Withers: Once again, it’s flattery that someone would seek something out that you’ve done.

AP: Did you ever consider another career besides music?

Withers: I had another career before this. I was in the Navy nine years. I was an aircraft mechanic. I was in my 30s when I started doing this. Once somebody said yes to me, my first record was “Ain’t No Sunshine” and I just kind of went from there.

AP: When did you start writing songs?

Withers: I wanted to sing and then I learned that you had to have songs to sing that nobody had ever sung before. I decided that it was easier to write them than to go find somebody else who had written them.

AP: Before you went into the Navy, you knew you wanted to do music and write songs?

Withers: No. Along the way I probably wanted to be a whole lot of things, like most little boys. I probably wanted to be everything from a fireman to a snake charmer. Then you settle on something and then you got to try to figure out how to get into it. There’s more people trying to figure out how do you get into it than there are really trying to figure out how do you do it. ... That process of people sorting out what they should or should not try to do, that’s another one of those great mysteries of life. People come in all kinds of fragile constructions.

AP: But at some point, you realize this is what you’re meant to do.

Withers: Actually, that’s what the whole thing is about. It’s like this game to see who’s going to really be able to do it. There’s a huge unfairness to life. You see somebody who’s beautiful and smart and was born into a house where everybody’s rich and everything is just there for that person. Then you see somebody else that’s deformed and retarded and blind and crippled and you think, man, who makes this stuff up? Who decides who gets what? It seems so unfair. It really doesn’t make any sense. So wherever you fall in that scale of people, then all you can do is just try to work whatever program was handed to you.