Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow…
Those words from “Lean on Me” held tremendous meaning when Bill Withers first introduced them in 1972. Today, they arguably hold even greater resonance. It’s been announced that Withers has passed away of heart complications at 81 years of age. While his recording career was a relatively short one, roughly spanning just a decade and a half, he leaves behind some of the most indelible songs of all time including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”
Withers titled his 1971 debut album Just As I Am, and the raw, simple and understated cover photo seemed to support that title. Withers, with an ingratiating smile on his face and a lunch pail in his hand, is standing against a brick wall at California’s Webber Aircraft facility. The U.S. Navy aircraft mechanic turned guitar-slinging singer/songwriter was somewhat of an anomaly on the music scene, and in his understated manner wrote on the album’s jacket, “It matters not where I came from in relation to the world, as long as the world and I arrive at a common point at a common time. I would like to thank Sussex Records and Booker T. Jones for allowing me to present myself to whoever is kind enough to listen.” His too-modest verbiage aside, there was nothing remotely common about Bill Withers.
A native of West Virginia, he served for nine years in the Navy, and upon his 1965 discharge continued to work in the aircraft business even as he began pursuing an extracurricular interest in making music. A number of fortuitous occurrences led to Withers being introduced to Clarence Avant of Sussex Records, who in turn brought Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. and the MG’s, to Withers. Jones was signed to produce the album that became his debut Just As I Am, and brought along compatriots like Al Jackson and Donald “Duck” Dunn to contribute musically. Adding a special sound to the album was the guitar of Stephen Stills. Sussex Records’ gamble with the untried Withers paid off. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” off the debut album, sold over one million copies and netted the singer his first of three Grammy Awards. The album launched a career that eventually encompassed eight studio albums through 1984, and one remarkable live set, 1973’s Live at Carnegie Hall. All were characterized by Withers’ clear musical storytelling, gritty yet inviting voice, and effortlessly, authentically funky style.
Though Bill Withers may be gone, we will long continue to learn from, and hopefully live by, the big-hearted lesson of “Lean on Me”:
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…