Back in 2009, John Legend and The Roots began collaborating on a studio album called Wake Up! The socially conscious project — which later won the 2010 Grammy for best R&B album — featured covers of Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times,” Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and Bill Withers’ poignant protest song against the Vietnam War, “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” Recalling the song as one of his favorites to perform, Legend shared with Billboard how one of his idols also became a friend. Withers died Monday at age 81 from heart complications.
“I always felt a connection with Bill. I didn’t know all of his biographical information when I was younger. But I grew up in Ohio and my dad worked in an auto factory. So I think I felt a bit of kinship to Bill growing up in West Virginia, being part of a working-class family and telling stories from a working-class perspective. He was somebody who came to the big city to be an artist and play his music. But you always felt where he came from in his music and his stories — and the plain-spokenness with which he wrote songs that were really profound and poetic. I loved him for many years.
“One of the songs The Roots and I covered on the Wake Up! album was ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed.’ That was our favorite song to perform when we were touring because we just built it and built it to this incredible crescendo that was really emotional, powerful and dynamic.
“The coolest moment of the whole time that we were out performing the album was when I got an email forwarded to me from my manager. And it was written by Bill. It was a pretty long email because, as I learned, he loved to recount stories. And in the email — the first time I’d ever heard from him — he told me the story of his discovering our cover of the song. It was through a phone call from [NBA legend] Bill Russell who told him to check it out because he thought Bill would like it.
“So he watched it on YouTube. He loved our take on the song and emailed around to see how he could get ahold of me to say how much he loved it and how grateful he was for what we were doing. He emailed me a lovely story about it with little jokes in there, which he always did. And then we ended up becoming friends after that. He’d come to some of the shows I would do in Los Angeles and come over to my house when we had a barbecue or something. Later I was able to be part of his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which I posted on my Instagram today.”