Bill Withers and The Pandemic
Published on UIC Radio
The first time I heard the music of Bill Withers was in a scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where Dr. Evil confessed to his emotional side about being the typical villainous archetype. The song was a remix of Withers’ “Just the Two of Us,” a legendary single that apparently reached number two in the Billboard’s Top 100 in 1980.
Although the scene was technically using Will Smith’s version of the once hit single, the groove still rung something in my senses. My friends and I saw this movie around the same time Michael Jackson had died, and the dance-able grooves and catchy bounces were something we had recognized.
Embarrassed for secretly liking the song, I managed to find the original single and would listen to it nonstop. Since then, I would not have given Withers’ music a second thought.
When his death was announced publicly, there was a stream of condolences and empathy, which ignited my interest in his music. The pandemic is sweeping the world with COVID-19 headlining in the news and affecting everyday life. When Withers was announced dead, headlines and articles would describe his music as “peacekeeping,” “simple,” and “pure.”
There is something in the song “Just the Two of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. (1943–1999) that feels tranquil and peaceful. Another one of his hit singles, “Grandma’s Hands,” was a short soul tune describing his grandmother. His grandmother’s hand used to clap during church, play the tambourine, and lift him up when he fell and hurt himself as a child.
The lyrics seem simple, but matched with an old-school R&B rhythm and Withers’ West Virginia accent, it sounds almost poetic. There’s something in his music that is simple and maybe a little catchy, that might be necessary in such complicated times as these.
The stock market has taken a hit and political turmoil is simmering in every country, and music such as that of Bill Withers brings us back to familiar and cherished nostalgia. Listening to his music gives us memories of perhaps family members, years of reckless youth, and tunes of simple joy or sorrow.
This seems to be the power that Withers’ music contributed to the world, and with his unfortunate passing, the reminder of peace and serenity has been given to the people affected by such a chaotic time.