By Briana Brady, Opinion Editor–
Bill Withers passed away early last week at age 81, leaving behind music reminiscent of the selflessness he exuded throughout his life. His career took off in his early 30s, well after he had accumulated real stories to tell. He used his voice as a component of a larger sound; the story he told became the centerpiece of the music rather than himself. Perhaps his work connected with everyday people so well because he was an everyday person. He knew well the realities that he wrote about.
Withers was born in rural West Virginia with a stutter, and it remained something he struggled with for many years. His youth was also marked by the experiences that growing up as a young black man in the Jim Crow-era south entailed: unending and unabashed racism. After graduating from high school, Withers enlisted in the Navy working as an aircraft mechanic. After working to rid himself of his stutter through mental tricks and techniques, he left the Navy to become a milkman and then took a job at an aircraft parts factory when he was in his late 20s.
After buying a cheap guitar from a pawn shop, he taught himself how to play and wrote his own music between factory shifts. Once he had saved enough to record a demo, Clarence Avant, a black music executive, gave him a deal with Booker T. Jones as his album producer. A photo of Withers holding his lunch pail at the factory became his album cover photo, and he kept that factory job until he was laid off a few months before his first album Just As I Am was to be released. He then taught himself piano through his initial earnings off the album, and “Lean On Me” was soon written as what Rolling Stone calls “a simple ode to friendship.” Perhaps the song best embodying his selfless nature, Withers’s career took quite a turn after that song shot to number one; his life was never again quite the same.
Refusing to give up in the face of adversity and carrying a strong streak of humility and self-belief, Withers and his music made an indelible impact on the world. “Lean On Me” has carried me and countless others through so many different places and stages of life, but it seems so incredibly applicable in these times of such deep inter-dependence and yet, isolation.
I am someone who prides myself in being independent. I am a deep introvert. I crave solitude. And, at times, I’m a bit of a homebody. So in part, I’ve been preparing for this #saferathome quarantine for a while now. But even from a distance, I need my folks, near and far, to get through. We all do. I need messages that remind me I am loved and cared for, and I recognize others need the same. I need phone calls “just to chat” so that I can get my mind off of whatever’s consuming my mental energy. I need that shoulder to cry on (even via technology) when it can’t be right there next to me. More than I might like to admit, in all stages of life, I am carried through by the compassion and understanding of others. I’m grateful for my people to lean on.
Withers understood these intrinsic feelings, and his music mirrors that understanding. His music not only sounds like, but also feels like, community. It exudes warmth, encapsulates familiarity, and breathes creativity. It connects our individual experiences with those we share.
The soulfulness housed in Withers’s very essence led him to embody the human experience in his timeless songs, especially in the one that begins by saying: “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. But, if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow,” and ends by offering: “I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load, if you just call me.” It well verbalizes the cyclical nature of both the leaning and steadying we are to exchange with one another throughout life. May that assurance carry us through this season of life and well beyond it.
Rest in peace, Bill Withers, and thank you.