The Optimistic Meaning Behind “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers

Bill Withers’ lyrics are poetic but worded so simply, that there’s no doubt about what he wanted to say. One of his goals was to write lines that people would be able to understand and remember easily. “Lean On Me” meets the criteria. The meaning behind the song shows the songwriter’s optimistic and vulnerable side. It was released in 1972 as the first single from his second album, Still Bill. Withers used the lyrics to reflect on his rural upbringing and the sense of community he had witnessed, the songwriter shared in an interview with SongFacts

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His experience was that most people were willing to “help out,” he said. “Even in the rural South, there were people who would help you out even across racial lines,” Withers explained. “Somebody who would probably stand in a mob that might lynch you if you pissed them off, would help you out in another way.” 

Withers’ lyrics outline what it means to him to be a good person: the willingness to be there for one another. He sings: 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. He also addresses the fact that admitting failure or weakness is hard but necessary sometimes.

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
Sing, you just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on
The crowdpleaser “Lean On Me”

“Lean On Me” speaks to its audience directly, as if a friend was singing to the person listening.  It was a successful recipe. People fell in love with the track. When it first came out, the song reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100. More than a decade later, Withers won a Grammy for “Lean On Me” – not for his own recording but for writing the song. The R&B group Club Nouveau had rerecorded the track and the new version became a No. 1 hit in 1987 and earned Wither’s the award for Best Rhythm And Blues Song. 

The song has also been covered by other artists: Mary J. Blige sang “Lean On Me” to celebrate President Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Kate McKinnon and Hillary Clinton performed it on the TV show Saturday Night Live, and a group of Canadian stars, including Justin Bieber and Bryan Adams, recorded the song to honor Withers after the songwriter passed away in 2020 and to raise funds for the Canadian red cross.

How “Lean On Me” came to be

Bill Withers was born in West Virginia in 1938 and could have easily started working at the coal mines, like most other black men in his hometown. Instead, he joined the army at 17 and stayed in the US Navy for nine years. After he left the force, he started playing music and happened to meet the right people at the right time. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles and signed a record deal with Sussex Records. 

When it was time to make a second album, Booker T. Jones, the producer who had helped shape Withers’ debut album, Just As I Am, wasn’t available. Withers convinced the label that he could produce the record himself.

Withers had just bought a Wurlitzer electric piano. “I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano,” he told SongFacts. As he was playing the phrase “Lean on me” crossed his mind. He used it as a prompt and wrote the lyrics around the question “What could lead someone to say those words?” 

The songwriter then worked out arrangements with the musicians from the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, which had just split up.

The legend lives on in his music

After releasing “Lean On Me” and his sophomore album, Still Bill, Withers made the most of the 1970s before retiring from the music business in 1985. He went on to record seven more records, including one live taping of his concert at Carnegie Hall in 1973. 

His journey was not always smooth. Sussex Records went bankrupt in 1975 and Withers moved to Columbia Records. He had been budding heads with A&R representatives over the course of his career because he didn’t feel like they understood his values and what he stood for very well. The dislike seemed to be mutual. Some described the songwriter as difficult, while he declared that A&R should stand for ”antagonistic and redundant.” Between 1979 and 1985 Withers’ career was on hold because he had refused to record a cover of the song “In The Ghetto.” No matter how many songs he wrote, the label did not let him record any of them. Finally, in 1985 he made one last album and called it quits. 

His songs have lived on in the form of cover versions and as samples in songs like “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. Artists such as D’Angelo, Aloe Blacc, and Ed Sheeran recreated his live album at Carnegie Hall in 2015. That same year, he was also inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame.

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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