“I’m not a fan of ‘Lean On Me’.”
That admission provoked the look of shock you might expect on all the faces around as I uttered it. I understood why they would be aghast at the notion of it, but I tried to explain why. Unfortunately, I need to explain it again at this sad occasion.
See, it’s really not that I dislike “Lean on Me,” the signature song from Bill Withers. On the contrary, it is as good or even as great as the rest of his hits. Many deserve to be individually named: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” “Just The Two Of Us,” “Use Me,” and more. The deep tracks are just as worthwhile.
Withers was blessed with a distinctive voice in an era that prized such singularity. You knew it was him, right from the first syllable. These special, unique voices rose far above the marketing and branding that so many singers seem to prize lately.
Bill Withers had this curious intersection of class and blues. There was an influence in his singing, mainly in his intonation, that made him a natural for modern jazz, which is why Grover Washington Jr. enlisted him for “Just The Two Of Us.” At the same time, he knew the blues. You can hear it in the mid-section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in that insistent, nearly aggravated but mostly ashamed “I know, I know, I know, I know…” This love affair is no good. He’s obsessed and he’s coming undone, and he knows it. That section alone reminds me of someone who has been crying all night. His friends call and try to persuade him to let her go. She’s breaking him up. He can only wearily respond, “I know, I know, I know…”
Born the youngest of six children in a West Virginia coal-mining town in 1938, Withers had much to overcome. He was born with a stutter which made him feel like an outcast. His father died when he was 13 years old. He enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 17 and served for nine years, during the 1960s and the height of political and military tensions. Of all the people to become a music legend, his trajectory seemed the most unlikely.
But here we are. His is a discography to be envied, often emulated but never matched, and just as often sampled. (This is part of my gripe when it comes to modern music’s lean toward homogeneous voices. Why rely on someone else’s? Why not cultivate your own? I digress…)
But back to “Lean On Me.” It’s a good song, but it has become the de facto “Bill Withers song.” It has a great message, which often gets lost to the listener that has grown jaded by the endless wave of aspirational/inspirational tunes so prevalent at the back of the 20-teens. They took Withers’ cadence, his messaging, but they lacked his sincerity.
Because of that track’s massive shadow, the other songs seem to regularly be out in the cold. You say – as my friends did – that I am being melodramatic, that everyone knows “Just The Two Of Us” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Maybe so. Maybe I’m being defensive. I simply think that, of all the artists to come from this era, Bill Withers ranks among the few whose entire output should be celebrated, not just a few tracks, not so much this one that just happened to give up its name for a Morgan Freeman movie.
Withers died in Los Angeles on March 30, 2020, from heart complications. His family announced his death on April 3, 2020.
I would be negligent if I did not mention a few other names from the past few days. We are going to face a very sad year as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world. A lot of heroes from the arts will die. A lot of friends and family will too. It is unimaginable that we come to this place, where a nearly invisible virus cuts through our hubris and arrogance as humans like a 5-body-blade samurai sword. Withers did not pass because of the virus, but we should also not forget some of those who recently did.
Alan Merrill, a guitarist and singer whose song for the band The Arrows, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” became Joan Jett’s breakthrough hit. He was 69.
Ellis Marsalis Jr., jazz pianist, educator, and father of Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He was 85.
Adam Schlesinger, singer-songwriter, record producer, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. He won three Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award, and the ASCAP Pop Music Award, and was nominated for Academy, Tony, and Golden Globe Awards. He was a member of Fountains of Wayne, Ivy, Tinted Windows, and composed songs for the CW television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the film That Thing You Do! He was 52.
Joe Diffie, one of the best-selling country music artists of the ’90s with Top 10 singles, including: “Home,” “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Pickup Man,” and “Bigger Than the Beatles.” He was 61.
It grieves me to say this list will grow, but we are assured it will. Please do your part to stem this terrible tide.
There’s currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
You can protect yourself and help prevent spreading the virus to others if you:
Wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds, with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub.
Cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue or flexed elbow when you cough or sneeze.
Avoid close contact (6 feet) with people who are unwell.
Stay home and self-isolate from others in the household if you feel unwell.
Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth if your hands are not clean