Where Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him. Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods. Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life. His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star. The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s. By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”
“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience. There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines. It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics. In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.” The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.
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