Updated: Apr 7, 2020
By: Robin Pyatt Bellamy - Breaking News Release
Update: April 3, 2020 | 10:02AM EST
One of our most beloved West Virginians has passed. Singer Bill Withers, born in Slab Fork, WV (Raleigh County, about 20 minutes from Beckley). He passed on Monday, March 30, 2020 at age 81. His death was related to a longstanding heart condition.
Bill was born into typical West Virginia poverty. As the youngest of six kids, and born with a stutter, his struggles were very real. Census numbers from 2000 show Slab Fork with a population of only 202, but when Bill was born it had much, more. It was a “coal camp”, the first of the Winding Gulf Coalfield, and was in operation by the Caperton Brothers from 1907 to 1983. In its first year, the mine produced 61,566 tons of coal, all hand drawn. The image depicted is a postcard photo of the town from 1938, the year Bill was born.
William Harrison Withers Jr. was born on the fourth of July that year. Named after his father, he was raised in nearby Beckley after his parent’s divorce in the early 1940’s. His dad died when Bill was only 13, and at age 18 Bill enlisted in the US Navy. He served 9 years, and by the time he was discharged he had kicked the stutter to the curb and knew he was destined for a music career. He was working in LA for the Douglas Aircraft Company when he recorded his first single, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” He didn’t leave the job because he viewed the music industry “a fickle thing”.
Growing up in Southern WV, his musical influences were primarily Gospel and Country. His second number one song, “Lean On Me”, was released only a few years later and is listed among the 500 Greatest Hits of All Time (Rolling Stone Magazine). In an interview, he says the song is inspired by the tight community spirit of growing up in small town West Virginia which is no surprised to any of us who were also raised in the state. “Lean on Me” was performed at the inaugurations of both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
"It’s always nice when somebody lets you know that you did OK,” he said in an interview. Sir, you definitely did OK.
He is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and Kori. Obviously, a public celebration of his life will have to wait, but in our hearts this great man lives forever.
Robin Pyatt Bellamy was born in Point Pleasant, WV in 1961 and grew up in Ravenswood. She is a professional paranormal researcher, family history researcher, and author. Currently living in Toronto, Canada she is the mother of three adult children, grandma to two littles, and a modern day “southern belle”.