*Please note that what's playing on our Soundcloud is Alt-J covering Bill Wither's "Lovely Day." For the original version, click HERE.
Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day” on the Menagerie album came out in 1977. I was born in 1984, and the first time I heard Wither’s soulful refrain was in 2005: “just one look at you / and I know it’s gonna be / a lovely day / lovely day, lovely day, lovely day…” in the home of a boy I was just getting to know; a boy that I would spend the next eight years of my life with.
There are few gifts in one’s life more poetic than the serendipitous introduction of a song – as if your life had its own soundtrack – playing over the private drama of falling in love for the first time.
This isn’t a post about being hung up on a past love, though. The Menagerie was in D’s record collection long before we met. And, though, for me “Lovely Day” begins with him, it certainly doesn’t end with him. I will say it felt wrong to leave D out, as if I wouldn’t be giving credit where credit is due. It just happened to be a song that he had, that he played in the background of our lives on lazy Sunday mornings and late into the evenings on weekdays, and no matter how many times I heard it, it never got old.
“Lovely Day” has played everywhere, and has been covered over 20 times by various artists like Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, and (as recent as 2014) by artist Alt-J. The track has been sampled multiple times for different R&B, rap, and hip hop songs. It also appeared in the film, 127 Hours, during the scene where actor James Franco unsuccessfully makes a pulley, and his arm remains trapped under a rock.
Withers has had an incredible career, especially considering how short it was (eight years according to Withers), with songs that have remained in the contemporary musical ether even after he decided to stop recording. In a recent Rolling Stone article titled “Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away” tells a story of a man in his early 30s who hit it big with timeless classics like “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971), “Lean on Me” (1972), and “Just the two of Us” (1981).
According to the article, Withers grew up in Slab Fork, West Virginia, one of the poorest rural areas in one of the poorest states in the Union. The youngest of six, he grew up with a stutter. He was a teenager in the Jim Crow South at the same time 14-year-old Emmett Till got beaten to death by two white men for whistling at a white woman. Desperate to leave Slab Fork, he enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1956. Still afflicted with a stutter, he was transferred to California in the mid-60s and realized that he would never have the courage to quit the Navy. “I couldn’t get out a word,“ he said realizing that his stutter wasn’t physical, but that it was exasperated by the worry of what other people thought of him. Without professional help, he eventually got over his stutter by playing mind tricks on himself like imagining people naked while he spoke to them. In 1965, he became the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California. Eventually he took a job at an aircraft parts factory where he was overqualified for having been a Navy aircraft mechanic.
His interest in music started when he visited a club in Oakland where Lou Rawls was playing. Wither recalled the manager complaining about paying Rawls $2,000 a week and he couldn’t even show up on time. Withers was making, quote: “…$3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting. Then Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.” In his late twenties, having no music-business experience, he bought a cheap guitar and taught himself how to play, writing songs between shifts. He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough money to record a demo. He sent his demo around major labels and got shot down until meeting Clarence Avant, a black music executive who recognized in Withers the universality of his lyrics and music.
Avant, who founded the indie label, Sussex, set Withers up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album. Jones then surrounded Withers with exceptional musicians like drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Stephen Stills on guitar. In 1971, Wither’s first album, Just as I Am, came out; and Withers recalls getting two letters in the mail: one asking him to go back to his factory job and the other inviting him onto the Johnny Carson show – Withers was 32.
In 1975, Sussex went bankrupt, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. Withers recalls, “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period.’” Withers met another executive who said to him while looking at the Four Tops, “Look at these ugly niggers.” At Sussex, Withers had complete creative control, but at Columbia he found himself in a large company that didn’t care about his music. “Lovely Day” on the Menagerie album is a Columbia produced record – the only song from Withers time with Columbia to reach the Top 40. After his last album, Watching You Watching Me came out in 1985, Withers quit the music business, and hasn’t released a new note since.
At 77 years old, Withers has a small publishing company that his wife Marcia runs, and anyone who wants to use the master versions of his songs needs his approval first. They’ve invested wisely in L.A. real estate, and he lives in a 5,000 square-foot home, with two adult children in their thirties who also live nearby – Withers is a man who doesn’t want for more.
In an NPR interview he said: “The best choices that I made was when I accepted who I was and was honest with myself and went about things how I believed it, without worrying about whether I was going to impress somebody or not. And the worst choices that I made was when I was trying to gain somebody's approval rather than choosing on principle. And every time I compromise one of my principles, the price is fierce for that…When you compromise on your principles, you might get a rush right, now but it's going to cost you big time somewhere down the line.”
What I love about the Withers story is how matter-of-fact he has been about his fame, his choice to leave music, and his conviction to continue to stay out of it has been unwavering: no drama, no drugs, no internal turmoil –it’s no Ray Charles Hollywood story. He was a guy who wanted to better his life, and he saw music as one way to get there–a man with a thought and the will to follow-through.
I don’t want to downplay how incredible Wither’s hard-headed integrity is, and how rare it is to find an individual with that much success steeped in keeping to his principles. Withers is even rarer in this day of awarding talentless people with fame simply for their beauty (the Kardashians), or the celebrity status of YouTubers (Justin Bieber’s start). People become famous simply for saying and representing horrifically stupid things (Charlie Sheen, R. Kelly, Donald Trump). Withers is, by these measures, exceptional.
Whenever I hear “Lovely Day” my arms rise, palms flat, and my face tilts ever so slightly up – like recalling a past, or the experience of an omnipresent joy. Now, I also have the story of Bill Wither’s who got it all by defining success for himself and doing it his own way – a lesson that gives me, a hard-nosed pragmatist, more confidence to bet on my dreams.