The great “Lean on Me” singer Bill Withers has passed away at the age of 81. Read a short tribute below.
Bill Withers didn’t take the easy road to defining 1970s soul music. Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia — where not many fairy tales begin — Withers suffered from a terrible stutter since birth, saw his father pass away at 13, and struggled to fit in with others. Nine years in the navy seemed to help him overcome the former and latter, but it also meant that he wouldn’t strike out to become a singer until an age when most successful acts are winding down their careers.
It wouldn’t be until the age of 32, after nearly half a decade of working in factories, gigging clubs, and shopping his demos around, that Withers would get a break thanks to “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Even then, he kept his day job. Fittingly, the cover of his debut album, 1971’s Just As I Am, sees Withers leaning against a brick wall at a manufacturing plant with his workingman’s lunch pail in hand.
However, it was that rugged but honest appearance, everyman nature, and history of enduring through hard times that breathed through his voice. That’s why “Lean on Me” became a major hit when it was released as the lead single off 1972’s Still Bill. It’s why it’s endured as a song the downtrodden have turned to long after Withers gave up the business in the mid-’80s. And it’s why Withers’ compositions and voice will be a sturdy shoulder to lean on for generations to come.
The song, like the performance below, offers no-frills, no choirs .. really, just Withers. It embodies the man’s warmth, strength, and simplicity, reminding us that a small, good thing like a shoulder to lean on in hard times can be enough for us to make it through to tomorrow.
In honor of a man, performer, and songwriter whose voice has helped millions in pain and sorrow embrace the simple wisdom that tomorrow will be better and that we’re all in this together, we share one of his finest performances of “Lean on Me”.
Stay strong, everyone.