William Harrison "Bill" Withers, Jr. was born in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and raised in Beckley, West Virginia; the youngest of thirteen children. Withers was thirteen years old when his father died. He enlisted with the United States Navy at age eighteen and served for nine years, during which time he became interested in singing and writing songs. Soon after his discharge from the Navy in 1970, he relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a musical career.
Withers worked as an assembler for several different companies, while recording demo tapes with his own money, shopping them around and performing in clubs at night. When he debuted with the song "Ain't No Sunshine" he refused to quit his job because he was never sure about his success.
After listening to Withers' demo in early 1970, Sussex Records. signed Withers to a record deal and assigned Booker T. Jones to produce Withers' first album. Just as I Am was released in 1971 with the tracks "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Grandma's Hands" as singles. (The album features Stephen Stills playing lead guitar.)
The album was a success and Withers began touring with a band assembled from members of The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Withers won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for "Ain't No Sunshine" in March 1972. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in September 1971.
The next year, Withers recorded his second album, Still Bill and the single "Lean on Me," went to number one in early July 1972. It was Withers' second gold disc, selling more than three million copies. His single "Use Me" released in August 1972, became his third million seller.
An October 6, 1972 performance on a rainy night was recorded for the live album Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall released before the end of 1972. In 1974 Withers recorded the album +'Justments. But he became involved in a legal dispute with the Sussex company and was ceased to continue recording.
Withers signed with Columbia Records in 1975. His first release with the label, Making Music, Making Friends, included the single "She's Lonely" which was featured in the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar. During the next three years he released an album each year with Naked & Warm, Menagerie, containing the successful single "Lovely Day," and Bout Love. the song "Get On Down," from Bout Love was also on Looking for Mr. Goodbar soundtrack.
Withers worked on on joint projects between 1977 and 1985, including the successful "Just the Two of Us," with jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., which was released during June 1980. It won a Grammy on February 24, 1982. Withers next did Soul Shadows with The Crusaders, and In the Name of Love with Ralph MacDonald, the latter being nominated for a Grammy for vocal performance.
In 1985 came Watching You, Watching Me, which featured the Top 40 rated R&B single "Oh Yeah." Withers ended his business association with Columbia Records after this release, which became his his last studio album.
In 1988, a new version of "Lovely Day" from the 1977 Menagerie album, titled "Lovely Day (Sunshine Mix)" and remixed by Ben Liebrand, reached the Top 10 in the U.K., leading to Withers' performance on the long-running Top of the Pops that year.
In 1987, he received his ninth Grammy award nomination and on March 2, 1988 his third Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song as songwriter for the re-recording of "Lean On Me" by Club Nouveau on their debut album Life, Love and Pain, released in 1986 on Warner Bros. Records.
In 1996, a portion of his song "Grandma's Hands" was sampled in the song "No Diggity" by BLACKstreet, featuring Dr. Dre. The single went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and sold 1.6 million copies and won a Grammy in 1999 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
Withers contributed two songs to Jimmy Buffett's July 13, 2004 release License To Chill.
In 2007, "Lean On Me" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.