By Andy GreeneEmbed from Getty Images
On a clear day, you can see the Staples Center from Bill Withers’ house, which sits high in the hills above West Hollywood. Today, in about two hours, the Los Angeles basketball arena will host the Grammy Awards; every once in a while, a limo will rush through Withers’ neighborhood, on its way to the event. But the 76-year-old Withers could not be less interested. He’s padding around his home wearing Adidas track pants, an old T-shirt with a drawing of a bus on it, and athletic sandals with blue socks. On the mantel in a hallway, there is a Best R&B Song award, for 1980’s “Just the Two of Us,” from the last time he attended the show, three decades ago; it sits next to two other Grammys, for 1971’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” and 1972’s “Lean on Me.” A few years after “Two of Us,” 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. “These days,” he says, “I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart.”
As the Grammy telecast begins, and AC/DC kick off the show, Withers jumps into his Lexus SUV and heads down to his favorite restaurant, Le Petit Four; he has a hankering for liver and onions but settles for the blackened catfish. The hostess knows him by name, but otherwise he blends into the crowd. “I grew up in the age of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson,” he says, still musing on the Grammys. “It was a time where a fat, ugly broad that could sing had value. Now everything is about image. It’s not poetry. This just isn’t my time.”
Withers has been out of the spotlight for so many years that some people think he passed away. “Sometimes I wake up and I wonder myself,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “A very famous minister actually called me to find out whether I was dead or not. I said to him, ‘Let me check.’ ”
Others don’t believe he is who he says: “One Sunday morning I was at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. These church ladies were sitting in the booth next to mine. They were talking about this Bill Withers song they sang in church that morning. I got up on my elbow, leaned into their booth and said, ‘Ladies, it’s odd you should mention that because I’m Bill Withers.’ This lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You’re too light-skinned to be Bill Withers!’ ”
Read More Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away | Rolling Stone.