Life Led Me to Bill Withers
My favorite songs, samples, and covers, and the ways his music touched my life
It was with a heavy heart that I read yesterday of Bill Withers’ passing. My roommate initiated a day-long retrospective by playing his music, which reminded me of the many times that his music has touched my life and led to me to reflect here. Where this article discusses samples and covers, I will include [Title of Bill Withers Track] / [Title of Sampling Track, Artist] as a cue to you, the reader.
Lean On Me
My good friend Ava Golchin was diagnosed with a rare T-cell Lymphoma while doing her oncology residency in New York City. The story is worth a documentary, reveals the flaws of our healthcare system, and I could make a long article if I wrote about it personally. But that’s not today’s focus. Before moving on, I’ll only add two things: she won that battle with cancer, and were she not an oncologist, she’d not be alive today. When her friend organized a haircutting party at the start of her treatment in 2014, that friend asked if I’d sing a song for everyone. After some thought, I decided to go with “Lean On Me”. At the event at Graceland hair salon in Williamsburg, her many assembled friends and family kept to those they knew. I passed out the lyrics to everyone in attendance, and after the first verse, I invited everyone to join me. The community singing dissolved those siloed groups and everyone made new friends. This event took place over a year before I started The Soundshop, but it was my first taste of how music can bring people together. The inspiration and conversations that came from the event led to Ava and me hosting “Music and Healing” in October 2018, which you can read about here.
Grandma’s Hands / Cover by Meg Mac
I don’t even recall how I first learned about Meg Mac, but I remembered the song that led me to her. Somehow, I’d stumbled across her track “Grandma’s Hands” on Soundcloud, which led me to become an early fan. As is the case when I find a song I love, I do research in all directions, so not only did I learn about Meg Mac, I learned that “Grandma’s Hands” was actually a Bill Withers song that she’d covered. And in researching that, I learned that “Grandma’s Hands” also became part of one of my favorite songs from the 90’s…
Grandma’s Hands / No Diggity, Blackstreet
At the start of “Grandma’s Hands” you can hear Bill Withers singing “mhmm” repeatedly over the opening guitar notes. Blackstreet then sampled those opening seconds for “No Diggity”. I’ll conclude this part with a story I heard first hand from a prominent music executive when she was starting her career working with Blacksteet. So you don’t get lost, I’ll caveat that we’ll delve into another song briefly before getting to the point: around 1994, her boss offered a handsome reward if she could get permission for Blackstreet to use a sample from an even-more-famous sample, for their song “(Money Can’t) Buy Me Love”. She called Michael Jackson, owner of The Beatles catalog, and in that call, she secured his permission to sample The Beatles’ “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”. Her boss delivered on his promise, and informed her that “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” would be the lead single. She believed that “No Diggity” should go first, but the label was unconvinced. But like the total boss she is, she leaked “No Diggity” to radio, ensuring that it would be the lead single anyway. And the rest is history.
Don’t You Want to Stay / I Do This, Kendrick Lamar
When I became fully obsessed with Kendrick Lamar (when he set the rap game aflame on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013) I hit up all of his mixtapes, which marked the only time I’ve loved an artist enough to seek out their back catalog. In this music discovery, I came across “I Do This” on his self-titled EP from 2009. What struck me about the beat was the melody’s nearly-baroque sound. A trip to WhoSampled revealed that the beat sampled Bill Whithers’ “Don’t You Want to Stay”.
Bill Withers has numerous other songs that artists have pulled from: To check out the 481 samples and 423 covers (at the current count) of Bill Withers’ songs, head to Bill Withers’ WhoSampled page.
— Akpanoluo U Etteh II
Akpanoluo Etteh is a singer, beatboxer, sound imitator, trombonist, music curator, data engineer by trade, and founder of The Soundshop.