Consider, if you will, Bill Withers.
Bill Withers was born and raised in the small coal towns of West Virginia. He is a stutterer. He released his first album at the relatively old age of 33. He released his last album at the age of 47, and never wrote, toured or performed again. He walked away.
His late arrival and early departure from the music industry might be understandable if he was only marginally talented, lacked creativity or inspiration. He was none of those things.
Bill Withers was incredibly inspired, and creative and talented…so much so that he knew the right time to begin his professional music career, and the right time to end it. Between 1970 and 1985, Bill Withers released nine albums, over 30 singles and had four top ten hits, including the spare and lovely “Lean on Me,” his (unbelievably) only #1 single.
The song begins simply enough. Only a piano playing a melody, mostly made up of whole notes. After the first two bars, the melody is countered by organ and a choir of male voices. Withers begins to slowly sing. He sings for us. He sings in perfect harmony with the choir.
“Some…times in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow”
Withers sings as therapist. As preacher. As parent. There is always hope, because tomorrow is always coming, and tomorrow might be better than today.
The tempo remains constant, but at this point Withers leaves the chorus, raises his voice up about an octave, and takes us to church. There is now a quiet drum and bass behind him. Silent strings.
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on”
This is not a complicated song. There is no subtext or hidden message, only words that each and every one of us needs to hear from time to time. It is OK. It can get better. There is always tomorrow.
“Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won’t let show”
Then the song changes from a speech to a conversation. That space which had been filled by voices, keyboards and strings now invites us in. There is space between the notes. There is syncopation and clapping. There is joy. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bill Withers is in the house, and he is here to help!
“You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on”
This song could have been the flipside to “Hey Jude” by The Beatles. It could have led off side A of Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder. It could have been Cat Stevens’ follow up to “Father and Son.” It sounds like all of these, and yet, at the same time, it has a sound and feeling all its own. I have heard this song played at sporting events, and sung around a campfire. We hum it as we walk down the street, and we let loose when it comes on the radio in our car. It is part of who we are. It is a lesson we have all learned. We are here for each other. I am here for you.
“If there is a load you have to bear
That you can’t carry
I’m right up the road
I’ll share your load”
Withers was a folk artist, and a disco artist, and a soul artist. Songs like “Lovely Day,” “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands” show how hard it is to pin him down to one genre when they are listened together.
In the 1980’s, Withers’ record company began try to tell him what kind of songs he should record, and what style of music he should concentrate on so that he would sell more records. People who could not play a note of music, who had never stepped foot on a stage, were telling Withers what his creative output should be, and Withers wouldn’t have it. He walked away, and never recorded and performed again.
There was a wonderful movie made about Bill Withers’ life called Still Bill, which can be watched online. We learn about his life, and his struggles. We learn about how much he loves his family and his friends. We see what a happy man he is today. We learn about that moment when his career became something he never envisioned, he decided he had enough.
In many ways, Withers is a simple man from a simple background, with a deep well of creativity and talent. I think it was easy for him to walk away when the music industry no longer made sense for him, and as sad as it is to think about the 30 years of music we will never hear, the songs we know and love will always be there. Lean on me, indeed.
“I might have a problem, that you’ll understand.”
“Lean on Me”
Written by Bill Withers
Performed by Bill Withers
Released April 21, 1972