Sunday, May 24, 2009

Number 18: Bill Withers

Lean On Me(A&M AMS 7004)

Chart Debut: 12th August 1972

Writer: Bill Withers

I resisted this choice for a long time, not because there was anything wrong with the record but because I doubted my own ability to write about it. 'Lean On Me' feels like a song that lends itself brilliantly to trite observations.

So, what changed my mind? Well, I was quite encouraged by the realisation that it's one of the few tracks on here that were made by people older than me. But the most important influence wasn't to do with this song at all, but with his first US hit 'Ain't No Sunshine'. When I had to search YouTube for the Lighthouse Family for the purposes of my other blog I was slightly concerned to notice that some of the people who'd done cover versions of 'Ain't No Sunshine' attributed it to them. A couple of weeks later, somebody sang the song on the telly, pushing the Withers original into the UK Top 40 for the first time: but some people seem to have gone for a Lighthouse Family version. Clearly, there are people who don't know enough about Bill Withers!

Perhaps that's always been the fate of this song, though: despite topping the US chart it was a bigger hit here for Mud and then Club Nouveau. The many other cover versions by everyone (even Bon Jovi) seem to suggest that it's become the sort of standard that's no longer really associated with the originator, although perhaps that suits the modest but presumably comfortably-off Withers rather well. With this in mind, I'm going to skip all the obvious observations about the song itself and emphasise how good this version is. Withers is perhaps the least showy of the great soul singers, as you can tell from the title and cover of the Still Bill album where this first appeared, and he judiciously avoids overcooking this, evading the tendency of some singers to turn this into sentimentality. After all, this may be a tribute to the community spirit of his childhood in smalltown West Virginia, but he had chosen to move away from there and perhaps this song is about the hardships that meant people had to work together as well. His touring band back him here as well as co-producing, and they help to create the open, warm-hearted spirit that the song seeks to evoke, as well as supplying an effective contrast between the the more upbeat sections ("Call on me brother if you need a hand") and the the slower verses and chorus. By the time we get to the sung outro it's almost gospel, and indeed the song does seem to have acquired that connotation in some places, although it's not really there in the lyric.

Perhaps I've made this description sound a bit like he did a cover version of his own song, but in a way it almost doesn't matter that he wrote this song, so much as that he lived it.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: WMG have silenced all copies of the studio recording, even though they don't seem to own the rights. There remain plenty of TV performances, including one introduced by Kenny Rogers.
Where to get it: There are too many compilation albums to count, but a quick scan suggests that Very Best Of is supposed to be the current one, whilst Ain't No Sunshine is a lot for a budget price and Greatest Hits is the one we used to listen to in the car.
I have the entire Still Bill album on a two-on-one CD with Just As I Am
but it is also available alone with two bonus tracks from Live At Carnegie Hall: you'd be better off with the whole of that though.