Bill Withers, Who Sang ‘Lean on Me’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ Dies at 81

Bill Withers, a onetime Navy aircraft mechanic who, after teaching himself to play the guitar, wrote some of the most memorable and often-covered songs of the 1970s, including “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me,” died on Monday in Los Angeles. He was 81.

His death, at a hospital, was announced by his family. His son, Todd, said Mr. Withers had had heart problems.

Mr. Withers, who had an evocative, gritty R&B voice that could embody loss or hope, was in his 30s when he released his first album, “Just as I Am,” in 1971. It included “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a mournful lament (“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/And she’s always gone too long/Anytime she goes away”) that cracked the Billboard Top 10.

Other hits followed, perhaps none better known than “Lean on Me,” an anthem of friendship and support that hit No. 1 in 1972 and has been repurposed countless times by a variety of artists.

Credit…J.P. Roth Collection

There were also “Use Me” (1972), “Lovely Day” (1977) and “Just the Two of Us” (1981), among other hits. But after the 1985 album “Watching You Watching Me,” frustrated with the music business, Mr. Withers stopped recording and performing.

“I wouldn’t know a pop chart from a Pop-Tart,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015, when he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“Bill was a mystical man,” Leo Sacks, who supervised the rerelease of Mr. Withers’s catalog for Sony Legacy Recordings, including a 2012 box that won a Grammy for best historical recording, said by email. “Like a Greek oracle. But he let the songs speak for themselves. He sang so conversationally and universally, like he was sitting next to you. His songs made every word count.”

William Harrison Withers Jr. was born on July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, W.Va., to William and Mattie (Galloway) Withers. His mother was a maid, and his father worked in the coal mines.

At 17, eager to avoid a coal-mine career himself, Mr. Withers joined the Navy.

“My first goal was, I didn’t want to be a cook or a steward,” he told Rolling Stone. “So I went to aircraft-mechanic school.”

He spent nine years in the service, some of it stationed in Guam. He quit the Navy in 1965, while stationed in California, and eventually got a job at an airplane parts factory. A visit to a nightclub to see Lou Rawls perform was a catalyst for changing his life.

“I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting,” he said. “Then Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.”

He bought a cheap guitar at a pawnshop, started learning to play it and writing songs, and eventually recorded a demo. Clarence Avant, a music executive who had just founded an independent label, Sussex, took note and set him up with the keyboardist Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & the MG’s, to produce an album.

“Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” Mr. Jones told Rolling Stone. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”

Mr. Withers was laid off from his factory job a few months before “Just as I Am” came out. After the album’s release, he recalled, he received two letters on the same day. One was from his workplace asking him to return to work. The other was from “The Tonight Show,” where he appeared in November 1971.

That “Ain’t No Sunshine” became a hit off that album was unexpected.

“‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ was the B-side to ‘Harlem’,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2015, referring to another track from the album, “until the D.J.s turned it over.”

The song, he said, had just come to him one day.

“I was watching the movie ‘The Days of Wine and Roses,’ looked out the window and it crossed my mind,” he told The Plain Dealer. “Probably some girl had left me, but ego preservation has taught me to avoid inconvenient truths.”

“Ain’t No Sunshine” won the Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues song. “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us” (a collaboration with the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., written with William Salter and Ralph MacDonald) won the same award.

Mr. Withers’s brief marriage to the actress Denise Nicholas in the 1970s ended in divorce. In 1976 he married Marcia Johnson. She and their son survive him, along with their daughter, Kori, and a sister, Florence Mather.

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