Music legend Bill Withers, who has died at 81, wrote the perfect song for these times

A wise man.
A wise man.
Image: AP/Mark Duncan
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This morning, when I heard the American singer and songwriter Bill Withers had died of a heart condition at 81, I immediately put on his 1973 concert album Live at Carnegie Hall. It is one of my favorite albums of all time, and a near perfect encapsulation of his work.

Withers was a terrific storyteller, and not only in his writing of classics like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Many of the songs on the live album begin with Withers telling the audience at Carnegie Hall a bit of backstory on why he wrote it.

I was enjoying the album and thinking about his legacy when the tenth track came on. It pretty much wrecked me.

It turns out Withers may have written the perfect song for challenging times. “Lean on Me,” which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, is an anthem about people helping each other out. In a 2004 interview with the website Songfacts, Withers said he wrote the song with inspiration from the way he saw people support one another in the West Virginia town where he grew up.

Withers had little use for abstraction in his lyrics, and the chorus of “Lean on Me” is a perfect example of this.

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

It manages to capture both the grief that comes with painful periods in our lives and the beauty of being supported by community, and of giving that support in kind.

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won’t let show

In the wake of Covid-19, many of us are grappling with grief over a way of life now put on hold and perhaps changed indelibly, while being struck by the selflessness of family, friends, and colleagues, as well as the medical professionals putting their lives on the line. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, in a period when we need to deliberately distance ourselves while also coming together.