The story behind "Lean on Me"

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By Ken Begley

Lean on me

when you’re not strong

I’ll be your friend

I’ll help you carry on

for it won’t be long

‘till I’m gonna need

somebody to lean on


Stanza of Bill Wither’s song, “Lean on Me”


Years ago I went shopping with Cindy in a mall in Louisville or Lexington.  I can’t remember which.  It must have been before we had kids because it was just us that day.

Cindy was going from store to store browsing away the afternoon.  

I’m not much of a shopper, so I just sat down on one of the benches and watched all the people.  I guess it’s sort of the city version of what we do in the country when we sit on our front porches and watch the world go by.

But this time I saw something that was burned in my memory, and makes me feel a little sad every time I think about it.

There was this very homely young lady, probably in her 20s or early 30s, looking longingly in the window at this storefront.  She kept staring in and then looking around to see if anyone was watching her.  

You could tell she wanted to go in, but just kept hesitating.  Nobody else was with her.  The store was one of those frilly places that all the young, pretty girls go to buy their clothes.  While she was hesitating, three very pretty girls rushed on by her into the shop.

She watched those girls and just stayed where she was.  I don’t know what she was thinking, but it seemed like she thought she would be trespassing if she went on in.  It was like she thought she didn’t belong there, and they’d make her leave if she stepped through the door.  It was like she didn’t feel good enough to enter.

I never saw her go in.  

I got up and left.  It sort of broke my heart watching this lady because I felt I could read her mind.

More than ever we’re fixated on appearances.  If you’re blessed with beauty and grace, then things will always go a lot easier for you in this old world as people tend to fall all over you.  That’s a proven fact in study, after study, after study.  


Because we’re stupid.  We fail to appreciate what’s really important in people - things like faithfulness, friendship, and love when it’s extended.

Sometimes, we can be down right mean and nasty to those who don’t have those traits prized by a material world.  Sometimes we can make others feel like they’re worthless.

I have a sister named Sara who studied special education at Eastern Kentucky University.  She was the valedictorian of her class.  She has worked with the severely physically and mentally handicapped in the past, though she isn’t teaching now.  

 She told me this story.  

She was driving in the town where she lives in Kentucky.  Some high school boys were in their car driving along.  She noticed they were getting their fun by harassing an obviously mentally handicapped young lady who was riding her bike through the town.  No one had done anything to stop this as it happened, and Sara was livid.

What she did next was the proudest day of my life.

She told me she stopped her car, which stopped the boys in their car.  Then she went back and verbally ripped them a new posterior while confronting them on the street.  They left considerably less cocky than they started, and I sincerely hope they learned something from the encounter.

If that was the proudest day of my life, then do you know what was the saddest?

The same day, because this ugly incident even happened in the first place.  How does someone like that girl feel after an incident like that?

So the above stories lead me to the song, “Lean on Me.”

Mr. Bill Withers composed and sang some 152 songs over a career that started a few decades back.  He did “Just the Two of Us,” “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” and many others that were blockbusters on more than 20 albums.   

The fact is you’ve heard most of them and didn’t even know they belonged to him.  Many have been getting airtime for some 30 to 40 years, and will continue to do so long after his death.  They’re classics with lyrics that equal some of the best poetry America has ever produced.  

One man did it all.

What you might not know is that Bill Withers is a black man who was born with a terrible stutter in Slab Fork, West Va.  A documentary is being produced about his life called, “Still Bill.”  The more Mr. Withers talked in the documentary the more he seemed like a philosopher, and I was drawn to what he had to say.  

A very interesting piece came up where Mr. Withers is brought to a whole class of young kids who suffer from stuttering like he had.  You can imagine how hard their lives must be at times.  The response he gave may prove as timeless as the lyrics of his best-known songs.  

Mr. Withers talked about his own life and how people would get in his face and say, “Boy, just spit it out.”  An interviewer said that basically he told these young students suffering with his same speech impediment, “You have to be kinder to people than they are to you.”

Mr. Withers went on to say in the film, “We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter. Having had people not understand me a lot maybe helped me wait a little bit to where I can extend something that hasn’t been given to me, and I think that makes you a much bigger person.”

Mr. Alex Vlack, one of the documentary makers, said, “I think all of us in the room were just floored. And I think the children really walked away proud, and just felt blessed that this moment happened.”

You know what? The only thing you’re going to take out of this world is the immortal soul you came into it with.  Everything else is petty stuff when you think about it. That soul will either be a shining, beautiful beacon of light or a dark, dead, ugly thing on judgment day.

Think about it.

Take care my friend.

Writer’s note:  National Public Radio’s Melissa Block did a wonderful interview on the filmmakers of the upcoming movie, ‘Still Bill.” Parts of the movie are related in the interview.  You can see it on the net at www.npr.org.