“Lean on me.” Have three words ever held so much power, warmth and heart in one breath? It's a sentiment that rang so true in 1972, when the mighty Bill Withers sang it, that the plain-as-day phrase became not only an anthem of its era and the signature of a true people's songwriter, but a lasting gift to the world. Who doesn't want to hear those words today, as division rules, rhetoric soars higher and wilder, and a simple understanding of human relations feels farther from reach than most can remember? The time for Withers is, as it has ever been, now. Which is why in the year of the man's 80th birthday, singer, songwriter and lifelong fan José James is releasing Lean on Me, a tribute album including 12 of Withers' most undeniable and soulful songs produced by Blue Note president Don Was and recorded in Capitol's legendary Studio B with a dream team band: Pino Palladino (bass), Kris Bowers (keys), Brad Allen Williams (guitar), and Nate Smith (drums).
James is often celebrated for his genre-blending, but this is different. “Bill wrote the songs you love your whole life,” he says. “I didn't want to put hip-hop beats under his music or deconstruct it with 10-minute bebop solos. There was only one right move here: show up with a killer band, run the tape, capture the vibe. We just played the songs.” That's also how all of this began, over the past few years, with James adding more and more Withers hits to his live set until he wound up with a massive medley that felt “like the best kind of church—people crying, dancing, singing and shouting. It was powerful,” he says. At the same time, James was reeling from the deaths of so many of his musical heroes. He couldn't shake the urge that he ought to celebrate that living icon among us, Withers, whose influence is everywhere—from Justin Timberlake's Trolls theme to James Blake's emotional electronica—and yet whose name is too often left out of the canon.
Lean on Me was born in late 2017 as a touring project but an album was always the goal. James, who has created masterful tributes to Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, went full ethnomusicologist in choosing the songs, poring over Withers' nine LPs, the 2009 Still Bill documentary, and some untold number of YouTube clips for clues. When he had his short list, he still doubted himself: “I reached out to Don to ask, ‘Do you think these songs would be cool?’ Don's like, ‘I dunno. Let's ask Bill.’ I felt like: ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” But Withers gave his blessing over dinner at Hollywood's storied Musso & Frank's. For James it was a bucket list moment.
“Meeting Bill Withers was one of the personal highlights of my life,” says James. “He's a total genius and one of the coolest people I've ever met. I learned more in that one hour with him than I learned at music school or a decade's worth of live shows. We all adore him and any songwriter worth their salt knows that Bill is up there with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John, Billy Joel – he's in the pantheon of greats. Plus he's an amazing singer and developed a sophisticated sound that blends funk, singer-songwriter, blues, R&B and gospel. I showed him my list of his songs and he absolutely loved it. I think he's happy that his music still has a place in the lives and hearts of people worldwide and that we all want to celebrate his life and talent.”
Across a decade of jazz excursions and forays into hip-hop, funk, soul and, on 2017's Love in a Time of Madness, futuristic R&B, James' silken voice has only gotten richer, warmer, and more resonant—a perfect delivery system for Withers' humane wisdom. Consider that rare cut about deep familial love, “Grandma's Hands.” James slows it up to savor his own memories while the band beats out a ramshackle groove. Withers' nuanced perspective on romantic love rings out too: the ache of “Ain't No Sunshine,” echoed by Bowers' expressive Rhodes; the celebration of vulnerability on “Use Me,” featuring Takuya Kuroda's Voodoo-evoking brass arrangements; and the bittersweet balladry of “Hello Like Before,” here in a dreamy hue. And then there's “Lovely Day,” which, as James points out, “is the hardest kind of song to try to write—it's pure optimism but somehow not corny.” Lalah Hathaway's voice dances along with his to all that ineffable joy.
These songs' timelessness is on display in both the lyrics and the music. On “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” you'll hear Withers' mastery of, as James puts it, “the turn of phrase that's never been used before yet you instantly know exactly what it means.” You'll also hear the band light it up, laying down a sound that's funky, soulful, southern and black—pure Americana. “Just the Two of Us” feels like an arm around the shoulder as Marcus Strickland's saxophone solo goes from blue to bright. “Kissing My Love” is pure swagger, driven by Smith's take on that classic drum break (which J. Cole sampled this year) and lifted by Dave McMurray's flute. “Who Is He” feels effortlessly cool, helped by Lenny Castro's fabled congas, even as it baldly confronts the anxiety of a man who suspects his partner is cheating. “Hope She'll Be Happier” is a staggering paean to loss but between Williams' guitar and Palladino's bass there is commiseration and comfort.
Withers retired decades ago, but this band reminds us how much he's still with us. Part of that is familiarity—this is largely the lineup from James' 2013 Blue Note debut No Beginning No End—but no amount of chops or mindmeld explains the earnestness they call up for Lean on Me. “You can't just sing the song,” says James, “you have to believe every word of it. With Bill, there's no space to not be genuine. You need to be comfortable with your emotional self, your masculine and feminine side, and hang it all out there.” He mentally grafted his own stories onto Withers'—past heartbreaks, new loves, an image of his grandmother handing him a five-spot for ice cream—though some were tough. Owning the desperation of “Better Off Dead” is painful work, and on the flip side, “Lean on Me”: “To summon that faith in humanity I felt like I had to put aside what's been going on in society,” says James. And like that, Withers' work continues to illuminate us all.