WHEN BILL WITHERS won his third Grammy Award for the Best Rhythm & Blues Song of 1987, it was for "Lean on Me," a song he had written in 1970. The song was back in circulation thanks to the remake by Club Nouveau, a No. 1 hit 15 years after Withers had had his own No. 1 hit with the song.
When Withers toured England, six months after receiving the award in 1988, he was shocked to find that he had another top-five hit there. Dutch DJ Ben Leibrand had remixed Withers' 1978 single, "Lovely Day," and had turned it into a dance-floor smash.
So it goes for Withers these days. The 52-year-old songwriter doesn't have much of a recording career himself any more; his last album, 1985's "Watching You, Watching Me," went nowhere, and his last Top 40 hit was his 1981 collaboration with Grover Washington Jr., "Just the Two of Us." Withers's songs, though, have taken on a life of their own as titles like "Lean on Me," "Use Me," "Grandma's Hands" and "Ain't No Sunshine" have become American standards.
"I've got no complaints," Withers says merrily. "I look at my life now, and it's like, hey, man, this has been a pretty good roll for a guy from a little town in West Virginia. I've made some runs at it, and I've made some money and had some fun. Young people come along and still record my songs. I can make a record if I want to, but I'd rather spend the time home with my kids and snuggled up under my wife -- it's warm in there. One of my favorite quotes is from Louis Armstrong: 'Better a has-been than a never-was.'
"Yeah, sure, I might have done this or that, but it's like that guy who missed that kick in the Super Bowl Sunday: A lot of people who will never attend a Super Bowl, much less play in one, will put him down, but he earned his way into that arena. And one thing I've learned along the way is you're cheating yourself if you don't stop every once in a while in that arena and look around and say, 'Check this out: I'm doing what I want and someone is paying to see me do it.' That's the kick. So forget that I'm not having the kind of success that I was having before. It's enough that I still have enough validity for someone to bring me to another city and play."
Blues Alley is bringing Withers to Washington to play through Sunday. Audiences will hear one of the major talents of the early '70s -- a time when socially conscious musical poets like Withers, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye spearheaded the shortlived but fertile progressive-soul movement.
"That was a time when people wanted to hear poetry in their songs," Withers explains. "Now people want to hear rhythm. That's all right; people have a right to demand whatever they want for their entertainment. I'm not one of those sour-grapes guys who say, nobody does it like we used to. Rhythm is fun; it's a legitimate form of entertainment. It's just not my strength -- I couldn't dance even if I hadn't gone to the bathroom for a year.
"The result is that songwriters are now emphasizing rhythm rather than poetry. Songwriters are like high jumpers; they only jump as high as they have to. If the standards for poetry in songs are set at three feet, that's all the higher they'll jump. Consumers haven't required anything more from their entertainers, so that's what they get. That's all right -- the poetry doesn't go away; it just plays for a smaller number of people."
The one thing that separated Withers from peers like Mayfield and Gaye was his rural childhood in Slab Fork, W. Va.. "People think all black people are street guys," he points out, "but you can't be a street guy if there aren't any streets. I grew up in a small town and all we had were roads. I'm a rural guy, so what comes out of me is rural. Nothing can come out of us that isn't in us already, and what comes out in my songs is the simplicity I gained from my childhood. Even when my own language had become more sophisticated, I still wrote in the simple dialect of home in songs like 'Ain't No Sunshine' and 'Grandma's Hands.' Some of my best songs had a very simple subject like 'Lean on Me.' "
"Lean on Me" is easily Withers's most famous song. It twice topped the pop charts; it served as the title and theme song of a 1989 movie, and it was the jingle hook for a successful Chevy ad campaign. Built atop a rock-solid gospel piano progression, it offers aphorisms for human brotherhood that are succinct without being sappy.
"I wrote that when I was still adjusting to my new urban life," Withers recalls. "Maybe I was nostalgic for the way things had been when I grew up, when the most valuable asset you had were the people you depended on. Guys had to help each other change their transmission, because they didn't have the money to wheel it into a garage. No one would sell you a used car that was worth a thousand dollars for $1,500 because it was a small place and you had to see people again and again. I didn't grow up with that fear of scams because there was no place for people to go after they scammed you.
"So that song was not one of those things -- and I've done them -- where you sit down and try to be clever. What I said in 'Lean on Me' was rooted in the way I grew up, and the language I used reflected the sound and the attitudes of the people I grew up with. It may not be grammatically correct, but it's morally correct."
BILL WITHERS -- Appearing through Sunday at Blues Alley. Call 202/337-4141.