Today is February 11 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you walk away? Sometimes navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well is to walk away from a situation. It takes a great deal of courage to walk away from someone you love, a job you enjoy, or a relationship that spans years. But walking away is sometimes the only path to self-preservation. Staying would result in far more harm than good. Confusion, doubt, and worry are the hallmarks of walking away. Only time distance, and reflection can help you understand the significance of walking away. Walking away from fortune, fame, and success is one-way people navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well. One such person was singer Bill Withers.
Withers recorded several major hits, including "Ain't No Sunshine" (1971), "Grandma's Hands" (1971), "Use Me" (1972), "Lean on Me" (1972), "Lovely Day" (1977), and "Just the Two of Us" (1981). Withers won three Grammy Awards and was nominated for six more. His life was the subject of the 2009 documentary film Still Bill. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Withers worked as a professional musician for just 15 years, from 1970 to 1985, after which he moved on to other occupations.
He was born in a small, coal-mining town called Slab Fork, West Virginia, on the Fourth of July 1938, the youngest of six children. He often described himself as a quiet and reserved boy who struggled with a stutter that remained with him until his late 20s. His father died when Withers was 12 and, looking to leave his coal-mining hometown, joined the Navy at the age of seventeen and served for nine years. In 1965 he quit the Navy and moved to California and eventually took a job at an aircraft parts factory. His interest in music happened purely by serendipity. Reflecting upon that night in an Oakland club Withers said “I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting. Then Lou Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.”
As Andy Greene wrote in "Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away," an April 14, 2015 Rolling Stone article “Soon thereafter Withers headed to a pawn shop, bought a cheap guitar, and began teaching himself to play. Between shifts at the factory, he began writing his own tunes. He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough to record a crude demo. Withers shopped it around to major labels, which were not interested, but then he got a meeting with Clarence Avant, a black music executive who had recently founded the indie label Sussex. Avant gave him a deal and set Withers up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album.”
Withers first album, 1971’s Just As I Am, had a cover photo that was taken during his lunch break at the factory; you can see him holding his lunch pail. As Withers recalled “My co-workers were making fun of me. They thought it was a joke.” Still unconvinced that music would pay off, Withers kept his day job until he was laid off in the months before the album’s release. As fate would have it, one day he received two letters in the mail. One asked him to return to work while the other invited him to appear on Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show appearance, in November 1971, helped propel “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the Top 10, and the follow-up, “Grandma’s Hands,” reached Number 42. He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. Soon thereafter, and tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship called “Lean on Me.”
As Greene noted “Withers was now a hot commodity, appearing on Soul Train and the BBC, and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall that was released as a live album. But he refused to hire a manager, insisting on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs to writing the liner notes to designing his album covers.” While his career looked perfect from the outside, it started to crack. He was unhappy on the road, opened for incongruous acts like Jethro Tull, and made less money than he felt he deserved. To make matters worse, Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. He quickly grew disillusioned over Columbia’s reluctance to allow Wither to use the recording studio, lack of support, and inability to accept Withers on his own terms. So, as Greene wrote “after eight years Withers became one of the few stars in pop-music history to truly walk away from a lucrative career, entirely of his own volition, and never look back.”
As Withers said in an interview posted by NPR on February 7, 2007 “The best choices that I made was when I was - when I accepted who I was and was honest with myself and went about things how I believed it, without worrying about whether I was going to impress somebody or not. And the worst choices that I made was when I was trying to gain somebody's approval rather than choosing on principle. And every time I compromise one of my principles, the price is fierce for that.”
How often can you walk away?