Last week saw the death of the American singer and songwriter Bill Withers, at the age of 81. Withers is a much-loved musician who leaves behind a rich legacy of songs – his biggest hit in the UK was Lovely Day, which reached the top ten in both 1977 and a decade later. But it is on his first two albums, Just As I Am (1971) and Still Bill (1972) where the treasure trove can really be found: Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me and Grandma’s Hands among the many gems.

Withers’ story was not the traditional route to stardom. He grew up in Slab Fork, a coal-mining town in West Virginia. His childhood was scarred by the death of his father when he was thirteen, and by his struggles with a stutter – something he only learned to cope with in his late twenties. By then, he’d spent nine years in the US Navy, and had gone on to get work as an aviation engineer. His day job when he got his first record contract was making toilets for 747s.

The music business is an industry with an emphasis on youth: Withers, by contrast, was starting out at an age when many pop careers were winding up. Maybe it is because he was that little bit older, and had lived a little bit more, that Withers’ music had that extra twist of empathy to them. He described Lean on Me in the album sleeve notes as being about "a love that says simply, ‘I am human, so are you'."

Ain’t No Sunshine, his breakout song, took inspiration from the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, about two characters struggling with alcoholism (the famous ‘I know, I know…’ section was meant to be a placeholder while he worked out the rest of the lyrics). Grandma’s Hands, acutely capturing his Grandmother’s character, was later sampled by Blackstreet for their 1990s classic, No Diggity.

There’s a soulful, acoustic simplicity to Withers’ best music and an everyman quality that endures: his debut album cover pictures him holding his lunchbox from work. During the making of that album, Withers kept his job, not daring to dream, even though the record company had pulled together a remarkable line-up to help record it: Booker T to produce, his various MGs to play backing music, and Stephen Stills to add guitar.

Withers looked at the assembled musical luminaries and asked Booker who was going to sing his songs. ‘You are, Bill,’ he replied, surprised. It was only when Stills’ bandmate Graham Nash listened in that the penny dropped. ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ Nash told him. Pretty soon, the rest of the world would know, too.