Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have a big big sound to create an anthem. Sometimes, you need little more than just a piano, a voice and a great great song with a universal theme. And contrary to hipster belief, sometimes great art is also incredibly popular.
Exhibit A for both assertions: “Lean on Me.”
After all, there’s not a sentiment that’s much more universal than “we all need somebody to lean on,” which is what Bill Withers tapped into when he took “Lean on Me” to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972.
And while some #1 songs don’t deserve to be there, and just happen to be in the right place at the right time, while others should be, but never even come close, “Lean on Me” is that rare example of a #1 hit single that deserved every ounce of its success. In the years since, it has inarguably become a standard.
On the day I’m writing this, it was announced that Bill Withers is going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Piano-based, gospel-tinged, and a bit of a slow burner, “Lean on Me” takes its sweet time to get where its going, but once Withers breaks through with that first “Lean on meee, when you’rrrrr not stronng,” he spends the rest of the song gliding from strength to strength, ending it with an everlasting reminder to call him, if you need a friend.
As someone who started listening to the Top 40 in 1973, I got pretty used to hearing “Lean on Me,” over my various AM radios, and fell in love with the unfussy arrangement, call-and-response chorus and that dreamily drifting fade-out.
“Lean on Me”
“Lean on Me” (Live 1973)