#RSFLASHBACK – Lean On Me (Bill Withers)
50 years ago, the Bill Withers classic reigned at number one
There are some songs that are so omnipresent throughout our lives that it feels as if the song has been around far longer than any of us. Such is the case with the Bill Wither’s classic “Lean On Me,” which celebrates 50 years this year, with this month marking a half-century for it hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A former Navy man, Withers actually wrote the iconic hit while working at Lockheed Aircraft, manufacturing toilet seats for Boeing 747s. The song is actually a tribute to the friendships Withers formed while working the job, commending the kindness and support his colleagues shared for one another.
Unlike most artists, Withers properly got into music much later in his life. He didn’t start singing professionally and recording music until the age of 32. Perhaps age brought wisdom and his real-life experiences helped to compose music that was relatable and much deeper than most of his contemporaries at the time.
He scored his first big hit in 1971 with “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The song peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 while also earning Withers a Grammy for Best R&B Song. “Lean On Me” followed the next year, further cementing his legendary status as not just a talented musician, but a brilliant songwriter too.
The song shot to #1 in early July of 1972 and stayed on top for three weeks. Interestingly enough, the single faltered internationally. It was a Top 20 hit in the UK but English glam-rock band Mud actually scored a bigger hit with their cover version in 1976, reaching the Top 10.
In 1986, Club Nouveau released a funkier go-go beat driven version of the song and to no one’s surprise, the single shot up to #1 again, one of just a handful of #1 singles to hit #1 again with a remake by a different act.
In 1989, the song title was further immortalized in the Morgan Freeman starrer “Lean On Me.” The film featured remakes by the Winans and Sandra Reeves-Phillips – adding a gospel tint to the track that would be celebrated for decades to come as the song became a church mainstay.
“Lean On Me” has become so popular and such a big part of popular culture over the past 50 years that it is truly hard to escape. Whether it’s in choir at schools, Sunday church or as a go-to charity single, the song’s legacy and message continue to resonate throughout the globe.
They just don’t make tracks like “Lean On Me” anymore and it’s a tribute to the late Withers (he passed away in March 2020) that he was able to capture the heart and soul of the people and create a song that transcends race, religion, class, and more.
There’s no doubt that the song will continue to be as present in the next 50 years and Withers’s contribution to music and society will continue to be celebrated and revered.