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.
“Lean On Me” is a perfect song, a hymn of deep human connection and mutual support. It’s a soul classic that’s practically become a folk traditional. As a recording, it’s gloriously simple — a plangent piano, a soft drum beat, a few subtle strings, a funky breakdown that hits at the exact right moment. As a song, though, “Lean On Me” transcends its production. It works just as well as a campfire singalong as it does on record. The mere fact that “Lean On Me” hit #1 stands one of those miraculous historical moments where the American public got something right.
But that’s the original “Lean On Me.” The next time “Lean On Me” reached #1, it had become… something else.
Bill Withers had retired in disgust by the time “Lean On Me” reached #1 for the second time. In 1985, Withers released his final album Watching You, Watching Me. When he’d finished with that one, Withers was fed up with his label rejecting his records, and he figured that he’d made enough money that he could depart from the music industry completely. That’s exactly what he did. After his 1985 tour with Jennifer Holliday, Withers was done. Over the next few decades, Withers popped up a few times to accept plaudits or to bask in public adulation, but he lived the rest of his life as a private citizen. The 2009 documentary Still Bill shows Withers making music at home. He just had no desire to share that music with the rest of the world.
Bill Withers’ songs never left, though, and “Lean On Me” had an unlikely afterlife. In 1987, “Lean On Me” became only the fifth song to become a #1 hit twice, by different artists. The Bay Area group Club Nouveau joined a strange and select group of pop-chart reanimators. Before them, only Donny Osmond, Grand Funk, the Carpenters, and Bananarama had taken old #1 hits and brought those songs back to the apex of the Hot 100.
Club Nouveau were already R&B hitmakers before they released their version of “Lean On Me,” but they’d never charted on the Hot 100. The group’s sound — a hard, synthesized, club-ready version of R&B — didn’t have a name yet, but it was already starting to take over pop charts. Bill Withers himself had very little to do with it, but his song helped usher in a new era of pop music.
Club Nouveau, formed in 1986, were the brainchild of producer Jay King. King, a native of Vallejo, enlisted in the Air Force at 18, and he got himself discharged after getting into a fight while stationed in Anchorage. After his discharge, King stayed in Alaska, and he booked a show there for the Californian band Con Funk Shun. (Con Funk Shun’s highest-charting single, 1977’s “Ffun,” peaked at #23.) Con Funk Shun told King that he should head back to California and write some songs. King listened.
Back in the Bay Area, King got together with a few other songwriters and came up with a track called “Rumors.” They offered it to Con Funk Shun, and Con Funk Shun turned it down. King suggested that the songwriters should form a group and release the song themselves. King and those other songwriters became Timex Social Club, and King released “Rumors” himself. He pressed up the records at Macola, the Los Angeles pressing plant that Eazy-E used for N.W.A’s early records. Released in 1986, “Rumors” became an out-of-nowhere indie smash, peaking at #8 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.)
“Rumors” is crispy digital funk. King and his bandmates were clearly listening to Prince and to groups like Cameo, but King has also cited UK synthpoppers like Tears For Fears and Thomas Dolby as inspirations. In its sample-heavy sparseness, the track also has a few things in common with mid-’80s rap, and Timex Social Club definitely worked within that world. The group spent the summer of 1986 on Run-DMC’s Raising Hell tour — the sole non-rap act on a bill that also included Whodini, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys.
The combination of sounds on “Rumors” — funk, R&B, hard-synth dance music, new wave, rap — was a new thing. The Brooklyn group Full Force had started doing something similar in 1985. In 1986, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ production on Janet Jackson’s blockbuster Control also drew on those sounds. In a 1987 Village Voice piece, the critic Barry Michael Cooper gave that new sound a name: new jack swing. But Timex Social Club wouldn’t stick around long enough to become a part of this trend that they’d helped popularize.
Shortly after the success of “Rumors,” some of the members of Timex Social Club signed a deal with an outside manager, splitting away from King. King, furious, enlisted two former members of Timex Social Club, producer/songwriters Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, as well as the singers Valerie Watson and Samuelle Prater, and formed a new group called Club Nouveau. If anyone missed the implications of the new group’s name, Club Nouveau’s debut single should’ve cleared that up. “Jealousy” sounded a whole lot like “Rumors,” and it was a clear shot at Timex Social Club: “Let me tell how this started and where it all began/ I guess I was a fool to try and help my broken social friends.”
“Jealousy” and Club Nouveau’s follow-up single “Situation #9” were both top-10 R&B hits, but neither of them crossed over to the Hot 100. But if those two tracks were too sharp and intense for white pop radio, then “Lean On Me” hit those stations right in the sweet spot. On paper, Club Nouveau’s “Lean On Me” is an extremely smart record — cutting-edge trends in Black club-music production, applied to a beloved song that would immediately evoke baby-boomer nostalgia and Trojan Horse those trends onto top-40 radio. The ploy worked, but it made for a not-great record.
In putting together their version of “Lean On Me,” Club Nouveau were trying to do their version of go-go, the hyper-local funk subgenre that was huge in Washington, DC and basically ignored everywhere else. Go-go had started out as sweaty, percussive live music, and that’s mostly what it remains today. In the mid-’80s, though, groups like EU were trying slicker, more electronic variants on the sound. The members of Club Nouveau would hear those tracks on late-night BET, and “Lean On Me” was their attempt to replicate that style. (Go-go groups have never been shy about cover songs; that’s part of the reason go-go live shows are such a blast.)
In Club Nouveau’s hands, “Lean On Me” becomes ebullient, uptempo dance music. Jay King co-produced the “Lean On Me” cover with his bandmates Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster. Their version keeps the piano line of the original, but then it turns it into bloopy synth-bass. The sounds are all electronic — huge drums, squelchy bass, very little else. The brightness of the vocals and the coldness of the track make for a weird, slightly offputting contrast.
Heard in a vacuum, without any knowledge of the Bill Withers original, Club Nouveau’s “Lean On Me” would probably sound like a bland, smiley dance track with a sticky hook. But when you know the Withers song, the Club Nouveau version comes off as an attempt to vacuum all the nuance and feeling out of the song. The Club Nouveau singers all sound overjoyed, and there’s no hint of bittersweet warmth. Club Nouveau don’t present “Lean On Me” like they’re talking about how hard life is or the importance of talking to a sympathetic friend. Instead, the track is just sheer simple happiness, something that the fake-reggae “we be jammin'” bit only reinforces.
“Lean On Me” is a song too rich and powerful for a reading like that. The melody still shines in the Club Nouveau version, but there’s a cynical cash-in aspect to the way Club Nouveau transform it into a sunny singalong. Ultimately, go-go deserves better than Club Nouveau’s version of “Lean On Me.” New jack swing deserves better, too. And Bill Withers definitely, absolutely deserves better.
Club Nouveau’s version of “Lean On Me” actually won a Grammy for Best R&B song, but since that’s a songwriter’s award, the statue actually went to Bill Withers, not to anyone in the group. Club Nouveau’s version of “Lean On Me” also showed up on the soundtrack of a movie that was also called Lean On Me, the Morgan Freeman concerned-teacher drama from 1989. Maybe Club Nouveau’s cover was the reason that movie had that title. Still, the “Lean On Me” cover didn’t exactly leave a deep imprint on society. Club Nouveau’s debut album Life, Love & Pain went platinum, and the much-sampled follow-up single “Why You Treat Me So Bad” also made the Hot 100, but it peaked at #39. Club Nouveau released two more albums on Warner Bros., but they never made the Hot 100 again.
After Life, Love & Pain, producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy left Club Nouveau, and they struck out on their own. As songwriters and producers, Foster and McElroy became massively successful. In 1988, Foster & McElroy started working with the Oakland R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, producing all the tracks from their debut album Who?. Tony! Toni! Toné! went on to become huge. (Tony! Toni! Toné!’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “If I Had No Loot,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) In 1989, Foster & McElroy also put together the girl group En Vogue, one of the most important R&B groups of the ’90s. (En Vogue’s three highest-charting singles all peaked at #2. 1990’s “Hold On” is an 8. 1992’s “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” is a 9. 1996’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)” is another 9. Foster & McElroy produced and co-wrote the first two of those.)
Club Nouveau singer Samuelle Prater also left the group, going solo in 1990 and releasing just one album. His single “So You Like What You See” topped the R&B chart, but it didn’t cross over to the Hot 100. Some version of Club Nouveau still exists, but the group didn’t really get to cash in on all the new jack swing that blew up after “Lean On Me.” This column will eventually have a whole lot to say about new jack swing, and about another new jack swing originator who had a whole lot of success by playing around with a Bill Withers song.
BONUS BEATS: On “Return Of The ‘G,” the opening track from OutKast’s 1998 classic Aquemini, Big Boi namechecks Club Nouveau. (The context: “Quit spreadin’ them rumors.” Big Boi seems to have Club Nouveau confused with Timex Social Club, which is an understandable mistake.) Here’s that song:
(OutKast will eventually appear in this column.)