EXCLUSIVE: Bill Withers Looks Back on His Career Before All-Star Tribute At Carnegie Hall
Andrew Zukerman

After his long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, Bill Withers, 77, is about to get some more well-deserved props: He will be feted at Lean On Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall on Oct. 1.

An all-star lineup—including D’Angelo, Ed Sheeran, Anthony Hamilton, Ledisi and Aloe Blacc—will perform Withers’ 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall in its entirety.  Although he hasn’t properly performed in years, the soul legend behind hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me” and, of course, “Lean On Me” talks about making his return to Carnegie Hall in a rare interview.

You recorded your 1973 live album at Carnegie Hall. So how does it feel to be going back there for your own tribute?
It’s kind of cool. It’s sort of like going to your own funeral. [Laughs]

What special memories do you have of recording that album at Carnegie Hall?
That was just a fun night. There was some question about whether I should be playing a place that big or not, because I had only been playing clubs. And it was only my third album, so there was some question about whether I should even be doing a live album. So I was happy people showed up in spite of it raining outside. I didn’t see any empty seats.

You finally got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. How cool was that?
They put me in good hands: Stevie Wonder inducted me, and John Legend played, so they gave me top-drawer stuff. And it was fun meeting all the people who normally wouldn’t be in the same room. My wife and kids got a big kick out of it.

When you wrote “Lean on Me,” did you ever imagine it would become such a classic?
Well, you can’t be on both ends of the thing. You can’t be in the front and in the back. And while you’re doing that stuff, you’re just trying to make something rhyme with something else. It’s really not so deep.

Looking back, how did that song change things for you?
I’m from West Virginia—you know, the fundamentalist religion thing—and some of those old people didn’t want anything to do with me until I did “Lean on Me.” They thought I was doing the devil’s music.

Do you ever miss performing?
I’m not that kind of guy. If I missed it, I’d try to find a way to do it.

What are you most proud of about your career?
The fact that somebody still finds a use for me. The fact that my songs outlived my activity. I lived long enough to see what my legacy is. It would have been different if I had just kept playing and playing right up to death’s door, but I haven’t played anywhere in 30 years. That’s the advantage of shutting down early: You get to see what it would be like after you died.

The “Lean on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers” concert takes place at Carnegie Hall on October 1.

Take a trip down memory lane.

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