In 1967 Bill Withers moved to Los Angeles to try to make it as a songwriter. While pursuing this dream he worked at Lockheed Aircraft, making around $3.50/hour. He spent $2500 of his own money to record some demo tracks. Not one record company or publisher expressed interest.
While working at a factory making toilet seats for 747s, he formed friendships with his co-workers and appreciated how they would help each other out. The mutual support this group of workers offered inspired him to compose a song. He titled it “Lean on Me.”
His upbringing played a large part in the song’s sentiment. “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 8 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.”
He recorded the track for his album Still Bill. The single went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1972. He left his factory job, but retained a good perspective, telling the L.A. Times: “Even when I was working on bathroom seats, this was at least constructive. I challenge anybody: I won’t sing for a month and you don’t go to the bathroom for a month and let’s see who comes off with less misery.”
“Lean On Me” won Withers a Grammy award for Best R&B Song … in 1987. On March 21 of that year Club Nouveau took their rendition of the song to #1, only the fifth time in the rock era that two different versions of the same song hit #1. (The first four? “Go Away Little Girl” – Steve Lawrence/Donny Osmond, “The Loco-Motion” – Little Eva/Grand Funk, “Please Mr. Postman” – The Marvelettes/The Carpenters, and “Venus” – The Shocking Blue/Bananarama.)
Bill Withers turns 77 years old today. Being he is an American institution, federal offices and banks are closed today. Many parts of the country are celebrating his birthday with fireworks displays, as they should. Here are twenty Withers tracks worth hearing, starting with the classic “Lean on Me.”
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