Jesse Winchester 1944 – 2014

Jesse Winchester died at the age of 69 in April 2014. I first heard him in the mid 1970s on Charlie Gillet’s rightly legendary radio show, ‘Honky Tonk’ which became my open university course on 20th century popular music.

Jesse Winchester was a highly accomplished songwriter and an affecting singer who could hush a room with the intensity of his performances. He was recognised by fellow songwriters of the calibre of Elvis Costello, John Prine and Ron Sexsmith as a master of their calling.

Bob Dylan, surely the dean of Songwriting, said that you could not talk about the best songwriters in the world without including Jesse and he paid him the compliment (granted to few of his contemporaries) of playing one of his songs on his wonderful radio show, ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’.

Jesse was born in Memphis and always carried with him a southern courtliness and a very strong sense of place. When he wrote about a state or a town, say Mississippi or Bowling Green, he brought it to life with such arrestingly vivid imagery that you really felt you had spent time there with him as your home town guide.

There was an elegiac, black and white photograph quality to many of his best songs. I often went to the prints of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, who shot so many evocative documentary images of the pre-civil rights era south, to find a visual companion for his work.

It seems to me that his songs emerge into the air like photographic prints blooming into rich detailed life from the developing fluid of his imagination.

Jesse Winchester’s songs were mature crafted works: the product of a highly intelligent and sensitive man with an acute sense of the power of the memories we accumulate as we move through a life.

Memories of our communities, our families, our friends and lovers, our contempories and the times we were together in. Inevitably, recollections of victories and defeats, of love we held onto and love we threw away.

He had the will and the artistry to closely examine those memories and to clothe them in story songs illuminated by powerful sensory images. Listening to the best of his songs is a rich immersive experience which can feel like a dream that stays with you long after you have woken up and which you know will reurn to haunt you.

My favourite Jesse Winchester song is, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ a wonderful almost archaeologically rich presentation of the sights, sounds and ambience of life in the rural heartland of the real and mythological state of Mississippi.

Like all the great Jesse Winchester songs this song does not shout at you, rather it beckons you to lean forward and listen to a master storyteller. A master who is so relaxed he seems to be singing the song while rocking back and forth on his front porch with a glass of bourbon at hand.

The instrumentation is simple – plucked guitar, atmospheric shimmer piano, stirring strings and a swelling vocal chorus supporting Jesse’s sweet, molasses filled vocal. The song paints a swooning picture of an unhurried life lived in a cotton country backwater.

You are made aware both by the lyric and the melody of the humidity of the south, of the sun that blazes from the sky wrapping everyone in an angry oven heat.

This is a land that has seen times of plenty – when the price of cotton was high. It is also a land that has felt the disdainful stamp of an invading army, neglect following painful defeat and economic depression.

Jesse Winchester paints in the details which make a scene come alive – the rusted barbed wire fence, the lazy creek, the tar paper shack. This is a land where one crop was king so you see the field specked with dirty cotton lint and in the background the characteristic sound of a John Deere tractor.

Meanwhile the air is suffused with the cloying smell of the honeysuckle vine, the barks of hungry dogs and the rustle of grasshoppers.

Only the snakes coiled up in the thick weeds and the old men are asleep. ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ is a loving recreation of a physical and emotional home place, a lullaby and a love letter to the past. The song is touched with greatness.

The land described in the song is at one level Mississippi – on another level it is of course the land of childhood; that Eden we all ache to recover but never can except through the alchemy of art.

It is the land of lost content which Houseman once memorialised as the blue remembered hills. In the song Jesse Winchester has brought this land to poignant shining life.

Jesse Winchester had a good heart and pursued his vocation as a songwriter and singer with all the resources at his considerable command. He leaves an enduring legacy. May he rest in peace.

Recommended listening:

‘Jesse Winchester’ his superb debut album containing stand out songs such as the wistful, ‘Yankee Lady’, the ruminative, ‘Biloxi’ and the transcendent, ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’

His second album, ‘Third Down 110 To Go’ (often available as a twofer with the above) has two classics in the gospel drenched, ‘Isn’t That So’ and the quiet wisdom of ‘Dangerous Fun’ which contains the immortal couplet:

‘It takes patience to walk and spirit to run
But nothing to pity yourself
But it’s dangerous fun’

The twofer of, ‘Learn To Love It’ and, ‘Let The Rough Side Drag’ in addition to the masterpiece of, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind” has the maturely romantic, ‘Every Word You Say’, the lazy swooning ‘Defying Gravity’, the philosophical, ‘How Far To The Horizon’ and a brilliant take on the Amazing Rhythm Aces country pop classic ‘Third Rate Romance’.

All the rest of his output has sprinklings of glorious songcraft and winning vocals. Look out in particular for the songs, ‘Bowling Green’, ‘A Showman’s Life’ and the emotionally overwhelming, ‘Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding’ which only a songwriter with a full heart and a steady head could bring off (see the YouTube clip below of his appearance on Elvis Costello’s TV show ‘Spectacles’ which demonstrates the effect he could have on his peers).

A trawl through his catalogue will find you arguing that I have missed out many of your favourites.

Immortal Jukebox: Arthur Alexander

A3:  Arthur Alexander: In The Middle Of It All 

‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

(Henry David Thoreau)

‘Now I ache, with heartbreak and pain and the hurt that I just can’t explain’

(Arthur Alexander)

Imagine you are the manager of a blue collar bar in a tough small town.  You work long hours making sure everybody has a good time and that nobody’s good time winds up leaving someone else on their way to hospital. 

You know who not to serve, who to share a joke with, who to warn off and who to throw out for their own good. You keep a weighted pool cue just out of sight from the floor within your reach – just in case.

You stock the jukebox and make sure that there’s old and new favourites: something that counts as a home town anthem; several that are fast and loud for the boys from the base; plenty to dance and sing along to for the girls with the faraway looks in their eyes; and, some for everyone to openly or quietly cry over. 

The night, though long, passes quickly for you and you don’t realise how tired you are until the door’s been shut on the last, loud, lonely drunk.

You look around and sigh thinking of the work needed before the whole cycle starts again after you wake up in a few hours. 

Time to pour yourself a more than generous measure of premium whiskey and play one last song. 

Only one will do.  Arthur Alexander, the patron saint of stoical fortitude.  I can’t go on, I can’t go on – I’ll go on.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ tells the story of a broken man surveying, with an eerie calm that almost amounts to existential detachment, the shattered ruins of his life : ‘ It looks like my life is about to fall’. 

Like all the great Arthur Alexander songs – ‘You Better Move On’,  ‘Anna’ and ‘Dream Girl’ – it’s the song of a grown up man; a man who has experienced joy and pain, the ecstasy and despair brought on by love and it’s loss. 

Though Arthur’s songs are suffused with intense feeling they are in no sense hysterical – the besetting sin of so much pop music.

The record opens with a beautiful elegaic guitar figure that seems to glisten and shimmer in the background throughout the song.  It then flows on at a stately, magisterial ballad mid tempo with the swooning melody and instrumental backing acting as a cushioned support for Arthur Alexander’s deeply affecting and entrancing southern country soul voice. 

Arthur’s vocal charm owes nothing to stylistic tricks rather it is founded on the ageless attraction of hearing the sound of a man’s open, if broken heart. 

A sound that we can all recognise when it is authentic and true.  Arthur Alexander’s proud and wounded vocals once heard will echo on in your own heart.

While listening to the song it seems as if you have pulled up your bar stool next to a pleasant looking though downcast guy who with no fanfare or needy plea for sympathy tells you, if you want to hear, why it is that night after night you can find him resident at this bar and why, night after night, no matter how much he drinks he does not get drunk.

During the course of, ‘In The Middle of It All’ the drummer seems to beat out a steady purgatorial pilgrim’s tempo while Arthur’s exquisite vocal lays out the extent of his lonely and desolate emotional landscape. 

His love for his girl which was, ‘Really, really real’ remains true even though the house and home their love had built together is now a reproachful ruin he occupies alone. 

The place where they had been so happy, as far as he can recall, now has the rain steadily and dreadfully falling all around it. 

What he once thought were the certainties of love and loyalty have vanished like some cruel mirage as his world, ‘Just came down one day’.

The song seems to summon up this heart and soul assaulting rain as the strings swell and the chorus of backing singers join Arthur in his examination of regret and loss. 

You can feel the southern heat and humidity of Alabama where the song was recorded in every breath of Arthur’s vocal and in every beat of the music. 

The wonderful piano playing provides arpeggios of insistent pain and a sense that, in this vale of tears, no shield of love or faith can ever be proof against the truth that a love which seemed so sure can, in an instant, crumble into mere dust.

Arthur Alexander’s singing throughout this song is filled with an aching tenderness as he caresses each word into bruised breath and life.  It is as if by singing with such scrupulous care he can somehow make whole his shattered heart or at least prevent it’s final destruction. 

His singing remains controlled and conversational even as it grows in the depth of pain it examines. 

Perhaps this is because the song, for this singer, even in such a situation is not a resentful scream but rather a tragic lullaby that tries despite all his trials to shore up a ruined life.

There is no escape from the realisation that all of us must sooner or later confront the inevitability of death, loss and failure.  For as the roman poet Virgil and Arthur Alexander knew living a clear eyed life involves coming to terms with the terrible truth that there are tears in things, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum’. 

If you want someone to hold your hand when this truth becomes real in your own life it’s hard to think of a better soul companion than Arthur Alexander.

‘In The Middle of It All’ is one of those rare songs that seems to live on in the silence after it has finished and after the record arm has returned to its cradle. 

Sometimes for me that silence feels like the silence between two sobs.

Forty years ago David Bowie in ‘Young Americans’ uttered an anguished plea: ‘Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry’. 

Well David, wherever you are tonight, here it is. 

It has always worked for me.

 

Notes, credits and further listening:

It seems that Arthur Alexander recorded ‘In The Middle Of It All’ four times in his life.  The version discussed above is the second 1962 version.

Arthur Alexander recorded some 120 songs during his recording career for a variety of labels.  His initial career featuring many of the songs he will always be remembered for  began at Dot Records and includes some of the premier recording at Rick Hall’s FAME  studio in Muscle Shoals.

From 1965 he recorded for Sound Stage 7, a Monument subsidiary and in 1971 he recorded a lone album for Warner Brothers.  In 1975, out of the blue, he recorded the marvellously fluid and typically affecting single, ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’ which incredibly made the US top 50.

Finally and most poignantly of all he recorded the lovely low key, Lonely Just Like Me’ album issued by Elektra in 1993 some three months prior to his death.

This was later reissued by Hacktone Records with the addition of live performances and also with some hotel room demos which have some of the 3am in the morning, death on the horizon mood, shared with the New York Demos recorded by Buddy Holly prior to his untimely demise.

The ever alert Ace Records have issued two essential compilations covering the Dot and Monument Years.  The other albums have also been reissued. 

A welcome tribute collection, ‘Adios Amigo’  came out under the Razor and Tie imprint and features Nick Lowe’s tender cover of, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ (indeed Lowe’s career in this millennium might be seen as the largely successful attempt to pare his songwriting and recording style to their essentials in emulation of Arthur Alexander).

A relatively small investment will furnish you with the heartbreakingly magnificent catalogue of one of the greatest singers and songwriters in any genre and you will surely find that the songs and performances will become treasured fixtures in your life.

They were certainly a fixture in the life of John Lennon who had clearly listened closely to Arthur Alexander as evidenced in The Beatles cover of, ‘Anna’.  The way that the famously acerbic Lennon could bring a wounded tenderness and discretion to ballad performances also betrays Artur’s influence. 

John Lennon kept a jukebox filled with his favourite records to fortify him against the madness of the world that had grown up around him: prominent on his own immortal selection were records by Arthur Alexander.

Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield Alabama in May 1940 and died in June 1993 in Nashville.  He was only 53 years old.

Despite recording several classic songs and having some of these covered by The Beatles (Anna) and The Rolling Stones (You Better Move On) he never really made much money from his songs.

Sadly, he was also prey to alcohol and mental health problems.  Disillusioned and depressed he was for many years largely estranged from the music business and spent long spells working as a janitor and school bus driver.

There is a heartfelt biography by Richard Younger, ‘Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story’ published by the University of Alabama.

Arthur Alexander might be said to be the epitome of the, ‘Country Soul’ style of music.  The movement as a whole is warmly evoked and intelligently discussed in Barney Hoskyn’s book, ‘Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted: Country Soul In The American South’ (Fontana/Bloomsbury).

Musicians growing up in a deeply segregated society were nevertheless heir to musical traditions that, principally through the medium of radio, effortlessly crossed the racial divide.  Mucians and singers recognised great songs whether they were played on country or ‘Race’ music stations. 

The constellation of wonderful musicians and songwriters who worked at Stax, FAME and Muscle Shoals studios were artistic freedom riders shattering barriers within the sanctuary of the recording studio even if they had to step carefully once they emerged into the heavy heat of the Southern mainstreet.

Booker T and The MG’s, Dan Penn, Chips Moman, Spooner Oldham and their brothers and sisters in rhythm made records that were recognisably southern and spoke eloquently of the lives shared by black and white alike.

There is a website ‘The annotated Arthur Alexander’ which is a very valuable resource for anyone seriously interested in delving further into Arthur’s recording career.

Muhammad Ali: Still Shaking The World!

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Fifty years ago Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, ‘Shook up world’ when he defeated the apparently invincible man/myth that was Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston to become World Heavyweight Champion. On that sultry Miami night the callow, impossibly brash and outrageously self-boosting 22 year old from Louisville Kentucky turned all rational predictions on their head.

The boxing fraternity was certain Sonny would win, it was just a matter of how quickly he would knock out Clay, the prancing pretender, and how badly he would hurt him. The grizzled veterans of the gambling world, above and below the legal line, knew there was no percentage in backing the long odds outsider. The good old boys of the south wanted the lippy, too smart for his own good, too handsome to trust black youngster to be put firmly in his place.

The only person who truly believed that there would be an epochal upset was Muhammad himself. His greatest asset was not his wonderfully lithe athleticism or his lightning jab and reflexes. His greatest asset was and would continue to be a stratospheric self-confidence, a sure belief in his own talent and the destiny he was born to enact. Looking into his opponents eyes Sonny usually saw a losers downcast dullness and often naked fear. Looking into Muhammad’s eyes he must have been shocked to see the glitter of absolute zeal and belief. Sonny couldn’t accept that this young punk could really believe that he might win – but maybe he really was mad not just acting like a lunatic – and nobody likes to fight a madman.

Over six historic rounds Sonny was to learn, painfully, that Muhammad was smarter, stronger and faster than he could ever have imagined and that behind the youthful charm there was a ruthless and brutal boxer who had come to win not to put up a good show. By the start of the seventh Sonny was beaten physically and exhausted mentally and emotionally. Sitting on the stool and not coming out for more humiliation was the only choice in the circumstances.

The victory was a cue for wild celebrations in our suburban Harrow on the Hill home. I was eight years old and full of grown up pride to be listening with my dad to the early hours commentary. Dad, a long time boxing aficionado, was already a fully paid up Ali fan and, as sons will, I followed and shared my father’s enthusiasm. In 1964, given my tender years, we were fortified in our vigil by industrial strength tea. As the years progressed through epic victories and defeats we listened,rapt, to Ali’s fights sipping bottles of Guinness. I can never think of Ali without lifting a metaphorical bottle of the black stuff to my dad.

Over the fifty years following the Liston victory Muhammad would demonstrate that he was the preeminent sportsman of the twentieth century and an icon of courage and steadfastness in triumph and disaster. Even in the face of cruel illness he would live with grace and grandeur. He has always been a credit to his race; by which I mean the human race.

It seems to me that the world is still shaking from the impact Muhammad has made on the globe in the last half century.

The Parting Glass: Phil Everly (1939 – 2014)

… A time to rise and a time to fallPhil Everly

Come fill to me the parting glass

Goodnight and joy be with you all.

There is a magical moment during the Everly Brothers celebrated and triumphant reunion concert at The Albert Hall in 1983 which goes some way to explaining the source of their enduring appeal. 

After opening with a heart warming , ‘Bye Bye Love, a rocking Claudette, the magesterial, ‘Walk Right Back’  a forlorn, stately, ‘I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain and the knock-out punch of, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ the band, which featured England’s guitar legend Albert Lee, took a momentary breather.

The two brothers briefly smiled at each other knowing now that a decade apart had in no sense diminished their power as performers.  Reassured, they leaned their heads close together and began to sing acapella, ‘These are the words of a frontier lad who lost his love when he went bad.’  The opening lines of, ‘Take A Message to Mary’.  As their two voices entwined in a rich fraternal harmony of heartbreakingly vulnerable perfection you can feel the whole audience catch their breath as countless personal memories are evoked.  

Memories of the passing years with all their freight of love, joy and loss.  Memories of friends, lovers and family happily present and memories of those now separated by distance, time and mortality.  Looking around the auditorium it was clear that few popular music figures have ever burrowed so deep into their fans emotional core or repaid that loyalty and affection with such tender grace.

Simply put the Everly Brothers were the greatest duet singers and brother act in the history of popular music. 

It will remain a mystery as to why the sibling relationship and consanguinity combined to supercharge the emotional resonance of Phil and Don’s harmony vocals and how this mysterious power could survive and endure for virtually all their lifetimes as brothers – whatever the state of their personal relationship. 

It was surely a mystery to them as much as to anyone else.

Phil Everly’s life began in Chicago but he was in every other sense a son of the South.  His parents were Kentuckians and musicians.  From the age of six he was singing on the radio with elder brother Don and his parents.  The songs they sang were country songs or those weird and wonderful folk songs as Dylan put it about, ‘Roses growing out of people’s heads’. 

From the get-go it was clear that these two brothers, influenced by other brother acts like the Delmores and Blue Sky Boys, had a uniquely potent mystical chemistry that made their arousing and keening singing able to thrill and also to pierce the hardest heart. 

As they grew older the cute boys became handsome young men, accomplished guitar players and confident performers.  They were thus in prime position in the late 1950’s to shoulder their jet black Gibson guitars ready to ride and help drive the runaway rock ‘n’ roll train as far as it could go.

Settling into their recording career at Cadence Records and supplied with a string of classic teenage angst songs by the likes of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’) the Everly’s took up residence in the hearts and memories of a generation. 

Phil himself wrote one of their signature teenage classics, ‘When Will I Be Loved’.  Up until the advent of the Beatles led British invasion the Everlys were reigning rock ‘n’ roll royalty enjoying massive chart success and the esteem of their fellow artists. 

They were also enormously influential – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies and The Beach Boys all freely acknowledged their admiration and desire to emulate the wonder of the brothers’ harmony singing.

Of the two brothers Phil was by all accounts the more outgoing, sensible and grounded of the two.  Though the younger brother it seemed that he was the one looking out for the more mercurial and vulnerable Don. 

Don, whose voice seems able to cleave your ribs and pull your heart apart generally took the lead part while Phil intently, watchfully, with a brother’s love and care, held everything together with poignant poised harmony.

Together they made a sound that has rarely been matched for longevity of emotional impact.

Phil had some notable successes as a solo artist including recording the excellent, ‘Star Spangled Springer’ album (1973) which contains the wonderful tracks, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘Snowflake Bombadier’.  He also worked fruitfully on the soundtracks of the Clint Eastwood  movies, ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and, ‘Any Which Way You Can’.

Genuine though these successes were they are minor in comparison to the luminous body of work he created with his elder brother.  They were great country singers, great rock ‘n’ roll singers and great pop singers.

Their body of work is sure to provide emotional sustenance and solace long into the forseeable future.  For people will always fall in and out of love and always carry the scars of past hurts even as they embrace new hope. 

There will always be an Everly Brothers song to turn to.

Bill Withers – The Better Angels

A2:  Bill Withers:  Lean On Me

 

‘A good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things’ (Matthew)

‘Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll help you to carry on’ (BIll Withers)

Bill Withers stuttered painfully as a boy and young man which meant he didn’t say much.  What he did do was listen carefully and thoughtfully to the people around him in his family and his community. 

Bill was  born and brought up in poor blue collar West Virginia mining communities where every day was a struggle with the constant background threat of injury and disaster.

In such communities loyalty, mutual reliance  and co-operation were not painted storybook virtues but living realities.   People worked with and for each other so that everyones burden would be a little lighter and thus more bearable. 

Bill was and is a proud working man who knows the labourer is worthy of his hire and worth listening to.

After leaving home at 17 Bill spent 9 years in the US Navy where once again you learned that if you wanted your back covered you had to perform the same service for your comrade – buddy or not.  Your life literally was often in your brother’s hands.

He also listened with intent and attention to the songs he heard in church and on the radio. His imagination became infused with the enduring resorative grace of gospel, the energising pulse of rhythm and blues and the sweet balm of soul music.  Bill was storing wisdom and treasure in his heart and when the stuttering stopped his voice came through loud and clear. 

Bill Withers would draw from a deep well of resources to write and perform songs that would always be fresh and relevant because they addressed fundamental questions about how our lives were and should be lived.

Which is to say that in many senses Bill Wither’s vocation combined that of a songwriter and singer with that of a preacher ministering to his community through the uplifting medium of music. 

The prolific country songwriter Harlan Howard defined the essence of a great song as three chords and the truth and that’s exactly what Bill Withers offers us in his wonderfully vivid songbook.

Lean on Me is a simple song that tells an eternal truth.   We all have pain, we all have sorrow: we all need someone to lean on.  It opens with plain repeated piano stabs calling the listener to attention – listen up I got something to say! 

The melody and rhythm echo the tradition of a gospel service: state your theme, tell your story through examples we can all recognise from our daily lives then call on the audience to respond.  Invite your listeners to testify that the seemingly unbearable can be borne if you call out to your brother or if your sister calls out to you – ‘I’ll help you carry on’.

Show that we can all be the leaning post for our brother or sister in need .. ‘I’m just right up the road, I’ll share your load if you just call me.’  For, as long as the moon lasts we are  all bound to stumble and fall in this life – it’s just a question of who falls when and how far and whether a helping hand and load bearing shoulder will be at hand to help you up and lead you on. 

The foolishly proud always think they can stand up alone while the wise now that with help we can all make it through today’s troubles to tomorrow.

Lean on me acknowledges, indeed celebrates our weakness and vulnerability but also our strength.  We are supplicants but we are also enablers, uplifters and  restorers. 

Yes, life will batter us and nobody walks in the sunshine all through their life but if we are honest, admit to our difficulties and failings and call for help we can be amazed that others are ready to come to our aid. Family, fraternity and faith in each other will get us through.

Of course, where a song is concerned having good intentions and a good moral to impart does not mean that the song will live. And, if a song does not live, get up and walk by itself on its own merits, then you won’t capture your audience, won’t get them to listen once – let alone sing along and punch that number on the jukebox.  Lean on Me passes this test easily: it’s a wonderful up and walking living song!

First and foremost Bill Wither’s warm, supple and alluring voice commands your attention and wins your allegiance – you want to listen to what this man has to say.  This is the voice of a strong, mature man with hard miles over rough ground on the clock. 

Yet, it’s the voice of an optimistic man ready to roll up his sleeves and face unafraid whatever challenges the next day will bring.  So, when Bill Withers sings you listen and when he calls out for you to respond you find that before you’ve realised it you’re singing :

‘We all need someone to lean on’

The song proceeds at a stately pace like a great powerful train allowing lolly gagging passengers plenty of time to get on board – confident they are in safe hands and will arrive at the right destination at the appointed time – the driver clearly knows what he’s doing.

As,’Lean on Me’ develops in come the most primal musical accompaniment of all – handclaps.  These are organically perfect in context: a song addressing our common humanity using the, ‘instrument’ even the most musically illiterate can at least assay when enthused.  On record Bill uses the handclap as a propulsive encourager of the spirit of the song, ‘Come on! This way’. 

In concert it is unimaginable that the bands handclaps aren’t swelled by all of those in the audience.  By now everybody is on board the train and seeing themselves as one body – whatever seat they happen to be in.

As the song moves forward the strings come in to emphasise the swelling strength that acknowledged common vulnerability can unlock – ‘Call on me brother’ and we will get through, we will get through – together. 

This is a song, without doubt as time has proven, an anthem, that proclaims our individuality and our community membership should not be warring forces but aspects of a natural, nurturing whole.  That’s what Bill and, ‘Lean on Me’ are – nurture for our humanity.

The greatest ever political leader once put it this way a century or so before Bill, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’. That is how we will find the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln said that. Or to put it another way:

‘You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand

We all need someone to lean on.’

Bill Withers said that.  I doubt that popular music has ever had a truer or more passionate guide to our better angels than Bill Withers.

 

Notes, Comments and further listening:

Lean on Me was written and produced by Bill Withers and recorded in 1972.

The musicians featured were James Gadson on drums, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Benorce Blackman on guitar and Melvin Dunlap on bass.

Lean on Me was a Number One record on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 Billboard US charts.

Bill Wither’s catalogue is filled with powerful melodic songs and taut performances.  His first two albums, ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Still Bill’ are essential components of any record collection. Songs like the warm, witty and wise ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and the gloriously evocative and consoling, ‘Aint No Sunshine’ are undeniable classics.

‘Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall’ is among the very greatest live records with superlative singing and musicianship responding to an audience that is thrilled to celebrate in his company.

Sony have recently reissued the complete Bill Withers catalogue which is widely available at a ridiculously cheap price given the eternity shale it contains.