The late Bill Withers was nothing short of an icon. His warm, husky voice is one of the most instantly recognisable in the whole of music. A soulful, introspective and emotive songwriter, after the release of his debut album, 1971’s Just As I Am, he quickly established himself as one of the most important and influential songwriters of all time.
Bolstered by the production of Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & The M.G.’s fame, and supported by a host of iconic musicians, including Stephen Stills, it is one of the most important records of all time, and from start to finish, Withers and the band shine.
Undoubtedly, the most iconic track on the album is the lead single ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, a timeless classic that utilises the phrase “I know” more than any other song in existence. Featuring Withers’ emotive lyrics, the song, like the album, found a place in the hearts of the public, regardless of economic or cultural background, and even won the Grammy for the Best R&B song, a significant triumph when you note just how fraught race relations were in America in the early 1970s.
During an interview with Rock Cellar in 2015, Withers was kind enough to explain to fans how he wrote ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and what he thinks of the song and album now. Asked why he thinks Just As I Am is revered as a classic, the typically humble Withers said: “First of all, I don’t listen to that stuff that much. I don’t know. It’s like, I learned a long time ago when I was growing up and the girls that I wanted to like me never did. Probably because some of the things were not connected to any particular time or genre. It’s like if you made something that was distinctly disco then it would probably be most functional during that time.”
The interviewer’s attention then turned to how he wrote ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and whether the Virginia native knew it was special at the time. Withers recalled: “I was watching a movie called The Days Of Wine And Roses with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both battling alcoholism. And at one point, one of them would be up and one of them would be down. They kept leaving each other. Then I looked out of the window and probably a bird ate a peanut and that just crossed my mind (laughs).”
Withers revealed that the song’s distinctive qualities became apparent relatively quickly after recording it that he was helped out by a rather short-sighted decision by the record label: “The song was written pretty quickly. It’s a very short song anyway. It has no introduction. They put it on the B-side of another song because they didn’t think it was suitable. When you put out singles, in those days you put what you thought you’re never gonna need again on the B-side.”
He continued: “The people turned it over and started playing it. How many songs can you think of that have no instrumental introduction and just ‘Bam’, somebody starts singing? And then not only that, a song that has no words in the chorus, just ‘I know, I know, I know”. In fact, I was gonna write something in there, and Booker said, ‘Nope, just keep it like that.'”
Always one for self-awareness, Withers then discussed the universal appeal of the hit, and the effects it has had on others, and briefly, the conversation took a morbid turn: “The song has no introduction and a two-word chorus. I think people still like ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ because a lot of people left a lot of people in there (laughs).”
Cynical as ever, he said: “More people get left than wanna admit it and they can identify with the song. Years ago, somebody told me this, it might not have been true, they found this person who had committed suicide somewhere in Northern California. Remember those old forty-five record players that would just keep playing over and over again? They kept hearing ‘Aint’ No Sunshine’ over and over ago. They broke in there and the guy had killed himself listening to that song.”
Withers even admitted that, at the time, the only song he was particularly enthused by was the equally as iconic ‘Grandma’s Hands’. He remembered: “The only thing that I thought was special when we did that album was telling Booker T about ‘Grandma’s Hands‘. I said, ‘If anybody remembers me, they’re gonna remember me for this.’ And now when people come up to me, they usually sing ‘Grandma’s Hands.'”
An incredible song by a wonderful artist, it is sure that we’ll still be discussing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ for years to come, a testament to the brilliance of Bill Withers. There will never be anyone like him again, but we can take comfort in the stellar records he left us, such as this one. Be prepared to let his dulcet tones wash over you, and to hear ‘I know’ enough for the week.