Bill Wither's "Lean On Me," An All-Time Good Vibrations Song

Bill Withers performs on UK TV show, London, 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

In 1972, “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers gave the world its go-to song for compassion and empathy in the simplest terms possible. For some people, “simple” might be considered a dig but for Withers, it was a passion.

As he put it, "It's very difficult to make things simple and understandable. You ever sit down and have a conversation with somebody who took their formal education too seriously? You're sitting there nodding because you don't want them to think you're stupid, but what you really think is, there's a lot of easier ways to say it, and you wonder if they even know what they're talking about or if they're just showing off.” Here’s how Withers made simplicity into a Billboard #1 hit for three weeks with “Lean On Me.”

Singer/songwriter Bill Withers at the controls of a soundboard in the recording studio in circa 1972. (Getty Images)

Humble Beginnings

Unlike many artists, Wither began life in a workshop rather than a music shop. Coming from rural West Virginia, the Navy represented the best choice for the future Hall of Famer. After nine years as a sea squatter, he worked in an airplane factory. Those years toiling away as an ordinary worker bee informed Wither’s humble outlook on life and perhaps, his cynicism for big city life:

“Coming from a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid, that would cue me to have those considerations. I think what we say is influenced by how we are, what's been our life experiences. Now, I notice young guys writing about shooting each other in the city and stuff like that, well I would never have said anything like that because it was not my experience, I'm not from a big city. I think circumstance dictates what people think.”

Coming On Up

After the success of his first album “Just As I Am,” which featured hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” Wither used the proceeds to purchase a very consequential piano. As he recalled,

“So I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, 'OK, I like the way that phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.' So you go back and say, 'How do I arrive at this as a conclusion to a statement? What would I say that would cause me to say Lean On Me?' At that point, it's between you and your actual feelings, you and your morals, and what you're really like. You probably do more thinking about it after it's done.”

We could all use somebody to lean on. spotify

A Song For The Ages

“Lean On Me” followed the same ethos of some of Wither’s favorite songs like ”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” by Roberta Flack, or Billy Joel's “I Love You Just The Way You Are.” In Wither’s mind:

"It's a rural song that translates across demographic lines. Who could argue with the fact that it would be nice to have somebody who really was that way? My experience was, there were people who were that way. They would help you out. Even in the rural South, there were people who would help you out even across racial lines. Somebody who would probably stand in a mob that might lynch you if you pissed them off, would help you out in another way.”

For what became possibly his most famous song, Withers doubled down on his conviction in simplicity. “To me, the biggest challenge in the world is to take anything that's complicated and make it simple so it can be understood by the masses. Somebody said a long time ago that the world was designed by geniuses, but it's run by idiots.”