It was his first and only number one on both the soul singles and the Billboard Hot 100. It is ranked number 205 on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Numerous cover versions have been recorded, and it is one of only nine songs to have scored No. 1 with versions recorded by two different artists. Withers' childhood in the coal mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia was the inspiration for "Lean on Me", which he wrote after he had moved to Los Angeles and found himself missing the strong community ethic of his hometown. He lived in a decrepit house in the poor section of town.
Withers recalled to Songfacts the original inspiration for the song; "I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, 'OK, I like the way that phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.'" 
Several members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were used for the recording session in 1972.