Saturday Single No. 683

Once a year during three of the four school years I worked for the Eden Prairie News, I taught an informal class in songwriting. And it was, sort of, Bill Withers’ fault.

Well, it was my fault. But it all came about because of Withers, who died this week at the age of 81, leaving behind a catalog of nine albums of R&B that crossed a lot of boundaries (and found a wide audience). Sadly, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Withers’ music when he was active. (His first album, Just As I Am, came out in 1971, and his last, Watching You Watching Me, was released in 1985.)

I knew and liked the major tunes, of course: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” “Just The Two Of Us,” and “Lean On Me” chief among them. And it was that last song that sparked my awkward and very limited turns as a teacher of songwriting.

It was early on a Monday, if I recall things rightly, and I was at Eden Prairie High School to shoot some photos of the concert choir as it prepared for a performance sometime in the next few weeks. The members of the choir were milling around the room and gabbing, and I stood waiting off to the side, camera slung around my neck, not far from the piano.

Then one of the young men in the choir said to another, “Hey, listen to this song I heard!” And he sat at the piano and sang the first verse to “Lean On Me.” But instead of underscoring every note of the melody with a chord, he played chords under only the first and last words of phrases.

His buddy nodded and said something nice about the song. And I couldn’t help myself. I went to the piano and told the first young man it was a good song, but he really needed to play all the intermediate chords for the song to sound right. He was puzzled, so I sat at the piano and played the song pretty much like Withers does, a chord for almost every note.

As I played, other students gathered around the piano, and when the choir director – a woman named Julie Kanthak – came in, one of the students said, “Hey, check this out!” She came to the piano as I played a bit more of the song. I’d been reporting for the paper for a year-and-a-half by that time, and I guess I’d never mentioned that I was a musician, and she looked surprised.

And when she learned that I also wrote songs, she asked me to come back on another day – when the choir was not deep into preparation for a concert – and talk to the students (many of whom I knew from having covered them in other school activities) about songwriting.

I did so a few weeks later, having given at least some thought to my process. I talked about the challenges of starting with lyrics, which I generally do, and the very different challenges of starting with the music, which I have done only rarely. And as I talked about that, I was surprised to realize something that I then shared with the students: Even though I’ve only written three or four songs by starting with the music, those three or four are among my best.

And I performed one or two of those songs, and a few of my others, talking between songs – sometimes between verses – about the process of putting each of those songs together.

I was in Eden Prairie for two more school years after that, and during each of those, I spent an hour with the concert choir, talking about songwriting and, I expect, learning more each time than did the students I was supposedly teaching.

And here, I imagine, I’m supposed to share Withers’ “Lean On Me.” But despite its small role in my very limited time as a teacher of songwriting – a memory I do cherish – it was never my favorite piece from Withers. I much prefer the album version of “Just The Two Of Us,” his collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. It’s found on Washington’s 1980 album Winelight, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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One Response to “Saturday Single No. 683”

  1. Val H. says:

    That is a very interesting story – thank you for sharing it here. I bet many of those students still remember and follow your lessons. Your song-writing career has obviously mirrored the Bernie Taupin/Elton John model – words first, music second. I’m afraid I have no musical talent other than appreciation but I was fascinated by Jimmy Webb’s book “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”. I wish I could say the same for his more recent biography. I just couldn’t finish it; the time-shifting was just too confusing. I’ve seen him live three times and I know he can tell very interesting stories. The book did him no justice. I’ll stick with reading your blog. Sending best wishes to you and your family from Australia. Stay safe and healthy!

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