In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a moment in Still Bill, the great 2009 documentary about the long-retired soul legend Bill Withers, where Withers returns to Slab Fork, the tiny West Virginia mining town where he was born. From what we see in the movie, Slab Fork is a poor, grimy, muddy little backwoods place. And walking around it, Withers looks absolutely delighted. Many years after he wrote “Lean On Me,” Withers said that he only could’ve written the song because he was from Slab Fork, “a place where people were a little more attentive to each other.”
Withers was well into his 30s by the time he got famous. He’d signed up for the Navy at the age of 18, and he’d stayed in the Navy for nine years. When he got out, Withers decided he’d try to make it as a songwriter, so he sold his furniture to a co-worker and used the money to move to Los Angeles. But that took time. Withers spent years working in an aircraft factory. He was 32 by the time he hit with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a mystical soul-blues lament that peaked at #2 in 1971. (It’s a 10, obviously.) Withers kept that factory job for a while even after “Ain’t No Sunshine” came out, convinced that his success would be fleeting. On the cover of Just As I Am, his debut album, he’s standing outside that factory in Burbank, holding his lunchbox.
Withers had come up singing and playing acoustic guitar. But when the “Ain’t No Sunshine” money started rolling in, he bought himself a Wurlitzer. He wrote “Lean On Me” one day when he was noodling at the piano, running his hands up and down the keyboard, and the phrase popped into his head. “Lean On Me” is a love song, but it’s not a standard love song. It’s a pledge of friendship, of support, through bad times. Years later, Withers said that his label didn’t understand what he was doing because he wasn’t writing about romantic love:
Romantic love is the most fickle thing in the world. The consistent kind of love is that kind that will make you go over and wipe mucus and saliva from somebody’s face after they become brain dead. Romantic love, you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically. The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.
It’s such a simple song. Withers sings in his warm, graceful baritone, and his melody is campfire-singalong stuff, direct and uncluttered. When the chorus hits — “Lean on me / When you’re not strong / I’ll be your friend / I’ll help you carry on” — Withers jumps up an octave, and you can hear him pleading, just a bit. He wants to help. He knows that you don’t want to admit whatever’s going on, but he knows that you need to open up, that things will get easier when you do.
Withers had been touring with members of Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, and they get a few chances to get loose on “Lean On Me.” During the “call on me, brother” breakdown, the song suddenly turns just slightly funky, with bassist Melvin Dunlap doing an understated strutting thing and drummer James Gadson (who was last heard playing on D’Angelo’s “Sugah Daddy” a couple of years ago) playing something like a breakbeat. But most of the time, the band, and the strings, are just there to help Withers get that simple melody across.
Withers was never a showy vocalist, but he could still reach for huge, devastating notes. He doesn’t do any of that on “Lean On Me.” He keeps things soft. He sighs, and he reassures. And yet there’s enormous feeling in his voice. The key, I think: “For it won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.” He knows that he’ll be in the same situation soon enough. “Lean On Me” is a social contract, a promise of mutual support. It’s a beautifully idealized vision of how things are supposed to work.
Withers made a lot of hits, and he got to #2 a few times, but “Lean On Me” would be his only #1. The song would actually get to #1 twice; this column will eventually cover Club Nouveau’s dancey 1987 R&B version. By the time that second version would come out, Withers was done. He retired completely from the music business in 1985. He stopped putting out records and stopped playing live. In Still Bill, we see that he’s still recording music at home when the spirit strikes him, but he has no interest in putting that music out into the world. And he seems completely happy where he is. Good for him.
As a teenager, I spent four summers working at a camp for people with disabilities in the mountains of Western Maryland. Half the summer, we’d be working with kids. My little sister, who has cerebral palsy, was a camper there once. But for the second half of the summer, the campers were adults. Some of them had been dealing with severe disabilities for their entire lives. Some of them had traumatic brain injuries that they’d sustained at construction jobs, or in motorcycle accidents. Some of them could do just fine on their own, and some needed help with everything.
One of the campers, I remember, was a literal former rocket scientist who could only slightly move his neck. He had this laser thing strapped to his head, and there was an electronic computer-voice board mounted on his wheelchair. When he needed to say something, he’d use the board to choose his words. Mentally, he was still all there, but his body had almost completely failed him to the extent that this was the only way he could communicate. I liked him. I think his name was Ken. He’s probably dead now.
At the end of every summer, the camp’s staffers and its adult campers would get together in the dining hall and, at the end of dinner, we’d all sing “Lean On Me” together — or, in any case, those of us who could form words would. So I can’t pretend to be even remotely objective about “Lean On Me.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Mary J. Blige, who will eventually appear in this column, singing “Lean On Me” at Barack Obama’s inauguration concert in 2009: