This past Spring, two of my best guitar students, N and A, learned the song “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers.
N, the singer/guitarist of this very talented duo was inspired to learn “Ain’t No Sunshine” from a YouTube video of John Mayer’s live 2010 cover version of the song. A, the lead guitarist, wanted to be able to play the melody of the first verse of this 1971 Grammy Award-winning “Best R&B Song” just the way Bill Withers sings it in this live performance from 1971.
Individually and together, I coached these two young musicians through the process of creating an acoustic guitar, vocals & electric guitar arrangement that combined the best of John Mayer’s and Bill Withers’ versions. In the end, N and A were the proud purveyors of a superb rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” that will stand as my favorite cover of this timeless R&B classic.
When I shared this story with my wife Andrea, I added that I’d forgotten not only what a good song “Ain’t No Sunshine” was but what a really fine singer Bill Withers was. Andrea readily agreed and went on to tell me how and why her all-time favorite Bill Withers song is “Lean On Me.”
Here, in this blog’s first ever contribution from a “Special Guest Writer” is Andrea’s own sixstr story:
“We all need somebody to lean on…”
Bill Withers sang those words to me over and over. And I sang along with him. Back and forth to high school graduation practice in my parents’ red Chrysler – the car radio blasting – 77 WABC – my favorite AM station for many years. Or driving to the Grand Union, Westwood Cleaners, running errands for my mother….bringing my brothers or sisters somewhere. At 18 I had many worries, but Bill Withers and his Top Ten hit “Lean On Me” kept me company – his words and smooth, smooth voice were soothing. The song begins with piano, then soft humming, then his voice wrapping you up in a hug with its messages of hope and help and friendship….and of course that gentle beat you can’t help but move with. The soft clapping. It was just what my 18 year old self needed to hear…over and over.
However, even now – all these years later – when I hear those first few notes, I am back there – in that old car with the radio on and the sense that my life is about to drastically change. And how I sure did need somebody to lean on.
Happy Birthday Mr. Withers. Your song made a difference in my life. I still remember every word.
After that dinnertime conversation, I discovered that the only Bill Withers recording that we owned was a vinyl copy of his 1977 LP, Menagerie. Andrea then did some online research and placed an order to Bull Moose Records in Portsmouth for a copy of the 2000 Columbia/Legacy compilation, The Best of Bill Withers: Lean On Me.
A few days later, we were savoring the luxurious sounds of “Lovely Day,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Use Me,” “Just The Two Of Us,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and twelve other outstanding Bill Withers songs.
In the course of her research, Andrea learned that July 4 was Bill Withers’ birthday. “You’ll have to do a blog post,” she exclaimed.
“Good idea,” I replied.
William Harrison Withers, Jr. was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia on July 4, 1938. Bill was the youngest of six children.
Bill Withers recorded his first album, Just As I Am (containing “Ain’t No Sunshine”) in 1971. He went on to record seven more albums, the last being Watching You Watching Me, which came out in 1985.
“Lean On Me” was from Bill Withers’ second album, Still Bill, which was released in May of 1972. “Lean On Me” held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for three weeks in a row, starting the week of July 8, 1972.