He scored his first and only No. 1 hit on both the R&B and pop charts with the 1972 anthem “Lean on Me.” The inspirational anthem was the first single from Withers’ second studio album, Still Bill. And its chart-topping ascent delivered on the promise hinted at the year before on the ex-Navy man’s aforementioned debut album. That album showcased his refreshing, folksy vocals and simple yet resonant lyrics by way of “Ain’t No Sunshine” (No. 3 on the Hot 100) and “Grandma’s Hands.”
“My favorite Bill Withers song is ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ says music industry pioneer Clarence Avant, who signed the newcomer to his Los Angeles-based label Sussex Records. “When Bill came to me, he said, ‘I guess you’ll be like everybody else, and turn me down.’ I said, ‘You’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t heard your music yet.’ But when I heard ‘Grandma’s Hands,’ I figured if anybody could write about their grandmother like that, he was worth a shot.”
After signing Withers, Avant called Stax chief Al Bell to arrange for Booker T. Jones to produce the neophyte recording artist’s first album. “After that,” says Avant, “Bill did everything himself: writing, singing and producing. He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met period. Just a brilliant writer.” (Fellow all-time great Stevie Wonder agrees about Withers' writing gifts, telling Billboard that he "was a great writer who painted pictures with lyrics, the same way that a great artist would do a painting or drawing.”)
Like “Grandma’s Hands” before it, “Lean on Me” was built around the hometown tenets that Withers was raised on: love of God, family and friends. And he didn’t need a big stick to deliver the song’s powerful message. That was subtly driven home by the song’s simplicity and gospel-rooted, sing-along cadence: “You just call on me brother, when you need a hand / We all need somebody to lean on.”
Rolling out the welcome mat for the inspirational “Lean on Me” were several immensely popular predecessors in the early ‘70s that carried equally strong messaging, such as the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Withers’ arrival on the soul scene in the early ‘70s also coincided with that of such fellow practitioners as Al Green, Roberta Flack, The Staple Singers and a solo Michael Jackson -- all of whom in turn exploded their way into the mainstream with No. 1 hits of their own in 1972. Withers joined their ranks on the Hot 100 dated July 8, replacing Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" atop the chart, and reigning for three weeks.
Still Bill also spun off another popular Withers’ classic in “Use Me," which came one spot away from his "Lean" peak, hitting No. 2. Like its predecessor, "Use Me" was recorded and produced by Withers and musicians from the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (“Express Yourself”) including well-known session drummer James Gadson. After “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” Withers added more classics to his repertoire throughout the rest of the ‘70s, including “Kissing My Love,” “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and “Lovely Day.” His teaming with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. in 1981 took him back into the top five on the pop and R&B charts once more, with his last major hit, “Just the Two of Us.”