Bill Withers' songs captured the emotion of the human condition.
With Holy Week deservedly taking much of our attention, and with the troubling world pandemic, we’ve been so busy that we haven’t had much time to lament the loss of Bill Withers, one of the most easily recognizable musical voices of the 20th century.
Withers passed away on March 30 due to cardiac complications, at the age of 81. While we believe that all people will find new life after death, on earth Withers is immortalized by his timeless tunes, which have influenced much of the R&B genre and beyond.
Withers’ catalog is full of memorable hooks and slick melismas, with lyrics that resonate deeply with the human condition. From “
Aint No Sunshine,” an emotional song about losing a lover, to “
Grandma’s Hands,” a tribute to Withers’ grandmother with a haunting guitar line, each of his songs touches on another aspect of life and love. Perhaps his most potent vocal comes from “
The Same Love that Made Me Laugh,” which features Bill holding long-sustained desperate howls of heartbreak.
These three songs in particular capture the feelings of pain and loss, but Withers was also especially adept at creating songs of hope and love. “
Lovely Day,” for example, is filled with the gentle contentment of a love that can turn a bad day into one of the best. The lyrics are thoughtful and intimate, and towards the end he sustains the line “lovely day” longer and with more breath support than any man has a right to:
When the day that lies ahead of meSeems impossible to faceWhen someone else instead of meAlways seems to know the way
Then I look at youAnd the world’s all right with me
Among Withers’ most hopeful songs, none compares to “Lean On Me,” Released in 1972, on the B-side of his record “Better Off Dead,” the song has a timeless quality to it that instantly hooks the listener. The melody is written almost in the style of a hymn, as it is easy to learn and almost begs to be sung along with. The tune is approaching its 50th anniversary and it still sounds as fresh and new as the day it was released.
Lean on me, when you’re not strongAnd I’ll be your friendI’ll help you carry onFor it won’t be long‘Til I’m gonna needSomebody to lean on
The song is filled with Christian themes of community and unconditional love; of support in the darkest hour and for reliance on another, rather than just oneself. In an interview with Zach Sorscher from Goldmine Magazine
, Withers explained that “Lean on Me” is so powerful because it is expressing a spiritual love, rather than romance. He said:
“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.”
Withers went on to note that the song is universally appreciated by people of all ages, races, creeds, and life situations.
“I remember visiting a prison and happening to walk by and the prison choir was practicing, and they were singing that song. They didn’t know I was there. I remember the kids put me in the sixth-grade play when my son graduated from elementary school. I had to sing ‘Lean On Me’ with the kids. They got me there. [laughs] From prisons to churches to children’s situations is where I’ve run into that song.”
He even went so far as to humbly note that the song feels like “something that was there before I got here.” He said that if you asked someone when it was written, they might say that it was 100 years old already. While he certainly doesn’t give any of the writing credit away, his descriptions of the tune suggest he felt he was guided to write it.
We may never see another artist of the caliber of Bill Withers, especially one who was willing to walk away from music all together at the height of his career, but thanks to modern recordings we have his unique voice, and beautiful life outlook, to remain with us for all time.