Bill Withers ‘Didn’t Live Out Loud’: Engineer Dave Hampton Salutes the Man Behind the Music

Most people don’t know him by name, but Dave Hampton is one of the music industry’s top-flight audio engineers. His clientele has included Prince, Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, RZA, M.I.A. — and Bill Withers, who died on Monday (March 30) at the age of 81.

In this exclusive as-told-to, Los Angeles-based Hampton goes beyond the music to focus on the special bond that he and Withers literally crafted by hand.

I met Bill Withers in the ‘90s with [musician/producer] Marcus Miller. I was working with Marcus on building a studio in Santa Monica. Bill and I struck up a friendship because he was a craftsman, just really good with his hands creatively. He was excellent at doing woodwork and masonry. He could do anything with tile. He’d built his first studio at his home in Benedict Canyon and had since moved to a new house.

When Bill met me, I gave him some advice about new materials being used in building studios. And from there we became good friends. Every time we saw each other, we would just talk for the longest [time]. I realized who he was. However, in my mind it was that’s Bill who drives a van around. He didn’t live out loud.

He was always concerned about me. I was a single dad at the time, and he admired the way that I spent time with my kids as I brought them everywhere with me. Bill was just real. Sometimes as a man, you need people like that in your life. You need people who are older and can give you a sense of wisdom.

When people like that spend time with you, it’s for you just as much as it is for them. Because Bill didn’t have to do this. He could have just stayed at home and been fine for the rest of his life. But he was there for me at a crucial time in my life when my mom passed away. I’d just been given a lot of responsibility and didn’t know who to talk to. So I remember talking specifically to Bill and his wife [Marcia] because so much was coming at me. I went to them and said, hey I’ve got some decisions I have to make. Can you give me some advice?

That’s what I liked about Bill. He had real country common sense that was very practical for me as a younger black man. I admired that; it helped me a lot.

Bill called me two years ago and said, “Dave, I’ve got something to say, so you’ve got to help me put in a studio.” He and his wife had moved to a new house, so we started on this journey of building a studio together. And working together in a creative space like that, you really start to understand more about someone as a creative and as an individual. It was a unique sharing experience, working on music he was writing or had written years ago and song material for his daughter Kori. At the same time, I’m listening to his thoughts and reflections. When a creative person shares those with you, you’re like wow, this is their sacred place.

That helped me a great deal too. I hadn’t done anything related to music since 2016 when my 27-year-old daughter died in an accident. Prince had died that April and 30 days later I lost my daughter. Music became a depressing place. But when I started to work my way back, I took a stance. I had to really love any project I decided to do or who I was doing it with. And then Bill called, saying the same words Prince said to me on New Year’s Day 2004 when we first met in Minneapolis: I’ve got something to say. He’d been recording at other studios because Paisley Park’s equipment needed upgrading. And now he was ready to come back home and work.

To be such a great artist whose music impacted the world, Bill was very humble and simply cool to be around. I hear his voice in my head now and the mother wit he laid down. He was such a prolific writer and user of words. Had his heart not given out, I think he would have had something to say. Would the world have heard him sing? When he talked or wrote, it wasn’t really necessary that he sing another note. The world has truly lost a special person and the best spokesperson for empathy and understanding at a time when we most need message music.

And I’m privileged to have just known him as a friend.