When Bill withers wrote Lean On Me in 1972, toying around on his small Wurlitzer electric piano with only the phrase “lean on me” to guide him, he could never have expected that the song – about a rural man’s loneliness in the big city – would become an inspirational anthem to those rising up after tragedy, or a celebratory rallying cry of togetherness and resilience in troubled times. Withers did not make his first recording until he was 32 years old, he had served nine years in the US navy and worked in various factory jobs in West Virginia, until he demoed his debut hit song Ain’t No Sunshine to Booker T. Jones at Stax records in 1971, and a new career path opened up for him.
He felt his rural upbringing greatly informed the lyrics of Lean On Me “Being from a rural, West Virginia setting, that kind of circumstance would be more accessible to me than it would be to a guy living in New York where people step over you if you’re passed out on the sidewalk, or Los Angeles, where you could die on the side of the freeway and it would probably be eight days before anyone noticed you were dead. Coming from a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid, that would cue me to have those considerations.” The song is cleverly constructed, lyrically straightforward and highly accessible, musically Withers merged, piano (electric and unplugged), bass, guitar, drums, and strings, at the bridge he inserted the reassuring lyrics “just call on me brother…” and returns to the repeated phrase “call me…” fourteen times in the coda to the song, in a similar way to his use of the expression “I know, I know….” in Ain’t No Sunshine.
Twenty -seven artist hooked-up under the name of ArtistsCAN for a trans-global performance of this song to raise funds for the Red Cross and Covid research, these included Avril Lavigne, Bryan Adams, Buffy Saint-Marie, Josh Ramsay, Justin Bieber, Michael Buble, and many others.
Following devastating earthquakes, in Haiti in 2010, and following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey in the US, Lean On Me was there, in the time of COVID-19, social media has been deluged with viral clips of the song, and recently it crossed demographic lines in an apartment building in Dallas, where quarantined residents opened their windows and joined together to sing Lean On Me.
It was Bill Withers only US #1, after Use Me and Just the Two of Us, both stalled at #2, and his debut hit Ain’t No Sunshine climbed to #3, and it has become an international anthem for co-dependence and mutual solidarity, Withers passed away on March 30, 2020, but his song still resonates around the world.