Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Bill Withers by diving into his only No. 1 hit, the timeless anthem “Lean on Me.”
On Bill Withers’ groundbreaking debut album Just as I Am, there’s a short whimsical track called “Do It Good.” Halfway through, Withers recalls — in melodic spoken word — the advice that producer Booker T. Jones gave the factory man-turned-recording artist. “When I came in here to try and/ Do this, something/ I’ve never done before/ Mr. Jones looked at me, said to me/ Don’t worry about it/ Just do what you do/ And do it good.”
Withers did just that for the next 14 years. And in those years — too short of a span for his legion of fans — the singer-songwriter born in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia reeled off a string of unforgettable hits and deep album cuts that continue to endure 45 years later. Love, betrayal, human nature, society’s ills and more provided the creative fodder for gems such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Harlem,” “Lovely Day,” “Use Me,” “Just the Two of Us” and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”
He scored his first and only No. 1 hit on both the R&B and pop charts with the 1972 anthem “Lean on Me.” The inspirational anthem was the first single from Withers’ second studio album, Still Bill. And its chart-topping ascent delivered on the promise hinted at the year before on the ex-Navy man’s aforementioned debut album. That album showcased his refreshing, folksy vocals and simple yet resonant lyrics by way of “Ain’s No Sunshine” (No. 3 on the Hot 100) and “Grandma’s Hands.”
“My favorite Bill Withers song is ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ says music industry pioneer Clarence Avant, who signed the newcomer to his Los Angeles-based label Sussex Records. “When Bill came to me, he said, ‘I guess you’ll be like everybody else, and turn me down.’ I said, ‘You’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t heard your music yet.’ But when I heard ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ I figured if anybody could write about their grandmother like that, he was worth a shot.”
After signing Withers, Avant called Stax chief Al Bell to arrange for Booker T. Jones to produce the neophyte recording artist’s first album. “After that,” says Avant, “Bill did everything himself: writing, singing and producing. He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met period. Just a brilliant writer.” (Fellow all-time great Stevie Wonder agrees about Withers’ writing gifts, telling Billboard that he “was a great writer who painted pictures with lyrics, the same way that a great artist would do a painting or drawing.”)
Like “Grandma’s Hands” before it, “Lean on Me” was built around the hometown tenets that Withers was raised on: love of God, family and friends. And he didn’t need a big stick to deliver the song’s powerful message. That was subtly driven home by the song’s simplicity and gospel-rooted, sing-along cadence: “You just call on me brother, when you need a hand / We all need somebody to lean on.”
Rolling out the welcome mat for the inspirational “Lean on Me” were several immensely popular predecessors in the early ‘70s that carried equally strong messaging, such as the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Withers’ arrival on the soul scene in the early ‘70s also coincided with that of such fellow practitioners as Al Green, Roberta Flack, The Staples Singers and a solo Michael Jackson — all of whom in turn exploded their way into the mainstream with No. 1 hits of their own in 1972. Withers joined their ranks on the Hot 100 dated July 8, replacing Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” atop the chart, and reigning for three weeks.
Still Bill also spun off another popular Withers’ classic in “Use Me,” which came one spot away from his “Lean” peak, hitting No. 2. Like its predecessor, “Use Me” was recorded and produced by Withers and musicians from the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (“Express Yourself”) including well-known session drummer James Gadson. After “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” Withers added more classics to his repertoire throughout the rest of the ‘70s, including “Kissing My Love,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and “Lovely Day.” His teaming with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. in 1981 took him back into the top five on the pop and R&B charts once more, with his last major hit, “Just the Two of Us.”
Withers would reach the top of the charts one more time, though not with one of his own recordings. R&B crew Club Nouveau claimed a No. 1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks with their cover of “Lean on Me” in 1987, putting a unique stamp on it with the catchy reggae-esque refrain “we be jammin’.” And Withers went on to win one of his record-setting three Grammys as the writer of the song, which won in the best R&B song category in 1988.
Beyond that, sightings of Withers were few and far between, until he took center stage for the illuminating 2009 documentary Still Bill. An ever-candid Withers not only talked about his creative process but also frankly about the stuttering problem he grew up with. Six years later, Wonder and John Legend helped induct Withers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he performed publicly for the last time. “Bill hadn’t sung in public for a long time,” recalls Legend, “and we didn’t know if we could convince him to come up and sing with us. But he did come up and sing a little bit of ‘Lean on Me’ with us. It was nice; I’ll never forget that moment.”
Over the years since its release, “Lean on Me” has underscored numerous charitable events and other occasions. Having been performed or covered by a diverse range of artists from Mary J. Blige and Glen Campbell to Al Jarreau, Michael Bolton and The Winans. The latter group remade the song in 1989 for the movie of the same name starring Morgan Freeman. The song’s uplifting message played a pivotal role in the film, based on the life of high school principal Joe Louis Clark. And as COVID-19 continues to ravage the world, “Lean on Me” carries even more urgency now.
“Who doesn’t like ‘Lean on Me’?” asks Wonder, rhetorically. “It’s just a classic song for all times, for all genres. It can be sung at happy occasions and even some that are bad when you need a lift. Just a wonderful song.”