A few weeks back (but what seems like a different world now) we told you about the Playing for Change project, which features covers of well loved pop songs played by a group of international musicians…the gimmick being that each musician is recorded in their own country and only come together in the mix.
Suddenly, it seems that Playing for Change was ahead of the curve, because this is the way the entire world is living right now. People are making art in quarantine, joining together only through the magic of 21st century technology.
But in honor of the passing of Bill Withers, who left us last week at 81 (not, we should mention, because of COVID-19), here’s Playing for Change with their version of “Lean on Me.” Withers’ message of love and community is exactly what we need right now.
In a 2015 Rolling Stone profile Questlove called him “the last African-American Everyman…Jordan’s vertical jump has to be higher than everyone. Michael Jackson has to defy gravity. On the other side of the coin, we’re often viewed as primitive animals. We rarely land in the middle. Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.”
That article adds that Withers was so long out of the spotlight that many already thought he was dead. And now he’s passed during a grim time, it seemed like there was one full day to mourn him before the next round of mortal coil shufflings. (We’re here to celebrate him for a little bit longer).
This cover features Renard Poché (New Orleans) on guitar, Roberto Luvi (Livorno, Italy) on slide, Grandpa Eliot (New Orleans), Clarence Bekker (Amsterdam), Saritah (Melbourne, Australia), and Titi Tsira (Gugulethu, South Africa) on vocals, aided by Keiko Komaki (Kagoshima, Japan) on keyboards, Toby Williams (Chicago) on drums, One eat One (Livorno, Italy) on electronics, Mariachi group Las Rosas Angelinas (Los Angeles) on strings, Alanna Vicente (Los Angeles) on trombone, and the children of Tintale Village in Nepal on harmonium.
The track was originally commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for The Art of Saving a Life, which aims to tell the story of vaccines and their importance to children over the world. (I would hope that we understand the urgency of vaccines right about now.)
Bill Withers was an accidental hitmaker, a natural tunesmith, who didn’t enter the business until his 30s and then dropped out of it less than ten years later. No comeback tour, no duets with an up-and-coming star. (Though Questlove was determined to produce one final album). What he has left is timeless, and his music is still there to get us through these troubling times.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.