Mar 30, 2020: Bill Withers, Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter of ‘Lean On Me’ Fame, Dies

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Bill Withers, an American singer-songwriter and musician, best known for a series of popular singles in the 1970s that included “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Use Me,” died March 30, 2020, at 81, of heart complications. Withers’ family announced his death on April 3, noting, “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.”

Withers was already 33 years old when he first achieved success with his first album, Just as I Am, on the Sussex label. The 1971 release, produced by Booker T. Jones, included “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which reached #3 on the Hot 100, and earned him a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song. The album’s personnel included Jones, his fellow M.G.’s members Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., and Stephen Stills on lead guitar.

One year later, he released a second album for Sussex, Still Bill, earning his only #1 single, “Lean On Me,” which topped the pop and R&B charts. The timeless, inspirational song includes the lyrics of hope and friendship, Lean on me, when you’re not strong, And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.

Watch Withers perform his hit in 1972

Related: 1972’s 40 most popular singles on New York’s WABC77

He followed that single with another 1972 smash, “Use Me,” which reached #2 on the Hot 100 and R&B charts. Withers later collaborated with the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. for another enormous hit, “Just the Two of Us.” It reached #2, Withers’ final top 10 single.

In between came one of his most beautiful compositions, “Lovely Day,” written with Skip Scarborough. Surprisingly, the song peaked at just #30 on the pop chart. The song is notable, partly, for Withers’ sustained vocal note toward the end that lasts 18 seconds.

Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 2006 with the Society’s Rhythm and Soul Heritage Award, presented to ASCAP members who have had a major impact on the legacy of Rhythm and Soul music.

Related: Withers was mourned by the music world

Additional honors include a Soul Train Hall of Fame award and two NAACP Image awards. In 2007, “Lean On Me” was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Withers was inducted into the 2015 Class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder, with John Legend performing his songs. In 2017 he received the prestigious International award of the Ivor Novello Awards in England.

Withers retired from performing and recording in 1985. He was the subject of a 2009 documentary, Still Bill.

Withers was born July 4, 1938, the youngest of six children, in a small, coal-mining town, Slab Fork, West Virginia. At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and ended up serving for nine years. It was during his service that he overcame his stutter, which had affected him as a child.

After a slow start, “Lean on Me’ reached #1 on July 15, 1972

He has said that his West Virginia town’s strong sense of community was the inspiration for “Lean on Me.” Record World‘s review in the April 8, 1972, edition, said, “The ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ guy’s new one finds him in a gospel groove. Unorthodox, original, fine.”

“Lean on Me” had a particularly slow time up the charts when it was released in early April 1972. It finally caught on in its seventh week, moving from #60 to #39. It ultimately reached the top on July 15, ahead of such future classics as “Rocket Man” and “Take it Easy,” which were quickly climbing in the Top 10.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall

Withers’ recordings are available here.

Best Classic Bands Staff

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  1. RecordSteve
    #1 RecordSteve 4 April, 2020, 11:41

    Bill’s lyrics are simple to reach the masses hearts & music catchy. Thanks for sharing
    your gifts with us….

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