Sometimes – and maybe only sometimes – the headline says it all. Bill Withers only had about half-a-dozen hit songs, but those six or so tracks are as essential as any six songs in all of American soul music. Most of the giants of any music genre have significantly more placings in the US top 40 than the now late Bill Withers – departed this world aged 81 – but there’d be few who wouldn’t still be green with envy to have a catalogue of tracks as sociologically vital as his.
We’re talking Ain’t No Sunshine (1971), Grandma’s Hands (1971), Lean On Me (1972), Use Me (1972), Lovely Day (1977) and Just The Two Of Us (1981). It doesn’t matter that there really aren’t any other Withers hits beyond these, because acts far more prolific than he would essentially give limbs for a top six half as good.
I always regarded Withers as the righteous meeting point of soul and folk. There was a directness and a homespun relatability that made him feel like an accessible hero. As such, it’s arguably one of the minor tragedies of 20th century American popular music that Withers’ career was so mismanaged that he felt disenfranchised enough to abandon it altogether in the mid-1980s.
Ultimately it didn’t matter, because all of us with even a vague appreciation of the power of pop will keep coming back to those six songs. Ain’t No Sunshine is as timeless a love song as is humanly possible about the “darkness” when the one you love isn’t there. Grandma’s Hands is both the greatest song ever written about the mysterious majesty of grandparents, while also being the foundation for Blackstreet’s hip-hop triumph No Diggity; Use Me is laid back acoustic funk of the highest order, Lovely Day is optimistic late-70s soul that will always transcend its decade, while Just The Two Of Us will always be the song when you feel like in spite of the whole crazy world out there, there may as well be just the two of you.
And then there’s Lean On Me. Even against those other unimpeachable five, Lean On Me stands above. As Sting once said, “the hardest thing in songwriting is to be simple and yet profound. And Bill seemed to understand, intrinsically and instinctively, how to do that”.
Look at those lyrics to Lean On Me and you see what Sting means. “Sometimes in our lives / we all have pain / we all have sorrow / but if we are wise / we know that there’s / always tomorrow”.
Lean On Me is one of the most profound, most meaningful tales of brotherhood. It’s pure gospel in tradition, though without ever mentioning God, and as a result is even stronger for its humble command that as humans, we must be the shoulder of our fellow man. If Bill Withers had never written another song, Lean On Me might just have been enough to put him in both the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
As it stands, he wrote many other fine songs, including the five others that secured his legacy. I’m not sure there’s an artist with as few hits as Bill Withers who will be as sorely missed as him. RIP Bill – this world is a better place because of you.