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Bill Withers set for all-star Carnegie Hall tribute by Ed Sheeran, Michael McDonald, more

Bill Withers performs at the Rock and Roll

Bill Withers performs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cleveland on Sunday, April 19, 2015. Photo Credit: AP / Mark Duncan

Bill Withers must be getting used to being honored.

The R&B singer-songwriter, 77, whose classic hits include "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April. In March, he was among the artists chosen to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Selma protests. And on Oct. 1, he will be honored at Carnegie Hall by an all-star cast of artists -- including Ed Sheeran, D'Angelo, Michael McDonald and more -- as part of City Winery founder Michael Dorf's long-running tribute series that has honored everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Prince and Talking Heads.

"Bill Withers is an incredible songwriter, who didn't get all the attention that he should have," Dorf says. "There are a lot of artists, including Ed Sheeran, who have a deep respect for Bill and want to lay the groundwork to raise awareness about him."

For his part, Withers isn't all that interested in more attention. "It's not like I'm 9 years old waiting to get in the glee club," he told me on the red carpet at the ASCAP Centennial Awards Gala last year. "I'm doing all right."

In his charming, disarmingly honest acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions this year, Withers graciously thanked those who had helped him in his career and discussed how he was able to enjoy it more because he was in his 30s when the success came.

It's been 30 years since he released his last album "Watching You Watching Me," walking away from the business after tiring of music industry politics. The industry doesn't interest him any longer. "I watch a lot of 'Judge Judy,' " Withers said in his Rock Hall speech. "I'm not out and about."

That doesn't mean Withers isn't grateful for the recognition. "Stevie Wonder inducting me into the hall of fame is like a lion opening the door for a kitty cat," he said, adding later, "Stevie Wonder knows my name and the brother just put me in the hall of fame."

Dorf says "Lean on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers" is special for several reasons -- a rare tribute held in the fall and only the second time an honoree has asked him to be included in the series. (Dorf says the scheduling won't affect next year's tribute, which will be for David Bowie on March 31.)

"It was a nice alignment of the stars," Dorf says. "He was interested because of a much deeper connection to Carnegie Hall. He was part of this incredible moment there 40-something years ago so this has a more karmic connection to the hall than usual."

The tribute will make the most of that connection, as the artists at the event will perform Withers' classic "Live at Carnegie Hall" album in its entirety. With the help of musical director Greg Phillinganes, who has worked as musical director for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, each of the artists -- including everyone from pop singer Aloe Blacc to country singer Kathy Mattea to fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John -- will perform one song from the album solo and then another as part of a collaboration.

Withers plans to say a few words at the benefit, which will raise funds for the Stuttering Association for the Young, but does not plan to sing. When Withers, who battled stuttering when he was young, was inducted into the Rock Hall, he did not sing by himself, though he did join in with Stevie Wonder and John Legend as they paid tribute to his career.

"It's been an odd odyssey with ups, downs and screw-me-arounds," Withers said. "But I will always remember the good things."

 

Carnegie Hall Classics

Bill Withers recorded "Live at Carnegie Hall" on Oct. 6, 1972, only a few months after his song "Lean on Me" hit No. 1 and about a year after his career was stable enough for him to quit his job in an aircraft parts factory. It is seen as a classic, not just for its collection of his hits, but the way he interacts with the audience. (Rolling Stone voted it No. 27 on its list of the greatest live albums of all time.) Of course, it features his smashes "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lean on Me," but there is so much more.

Here's a look at some of the other most memorable moments:

"Use Me": His opening goes so well that Withers and the band play it again after welcoming the crowd, turning it into an eight-minute epic anthem.

"Grandma's Hands": He gets a huge reaction when he introduces the tribute, explaining how people tell him, "I dug my grandmother, too." The bit sampled by Blackstreet for "No Diggity" is also easy to spot.

"I Can't Write Left-Handed": Withers had to add an explanation to the anti-war anthem because in between the concert and the album's release, the Vietnam War ended. "If you're like me, you'll remember it like anybody remembers any war -- one big drag," Withers says. The opening is sampled by Fatboy Slim for his hit "Demons" with Macy Gray.

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Oct. 1, Carnegie Hall, Manhattan

INFO $48-$160, 212-247-7800, musicof.org

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