We’re dipping back into the Far Out Magazine archive to relive a very special performance from the brilliant Bill Withers delivering ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ live in 1972.
Withers, the iconic singer of legendary songs like ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Lovely Day’, passed away at age 81 following heart complications. The three-time Grammy Award winner died on Monday in Los Angeles.
Associated Press shared the family’s statement: “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other.”
“As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
After a prolific decade of recording music throughout the 1970s, his songs remain a major influence on R&B despite making the decision to step away from the public and stop recording in 1985. Withers, who found musical fame slightly later than most, developed an instant disdain for record label executives or, as he called them, ‘blaxperts’, and it later resulted in his decision to step away from music altogether.
“Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn’t yet understand how precarious its status was,” music essayist Robert Christgau once said. “Warm, raunchy, secular, common, he never strove for Ashford & Simpson-style sophistication, which hardly rendered him immune to the temptations of sudden wealth—cross-class attraction is what gives ‘Use Me’ its kick. He didn’t accept that there had to be winners and losers, that fellowship was a luxury the newly successful couldn’t afford. Soon sudden wealth took its toll on him while economic clampdown took its toll on his social context.”
Before the difficult relationships with record label executives, however, Withers was relentlessly passionate about his music and had a thirst like no other for performing his music live. Here, we remember one of his most sparkling renditions of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ when he appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a foundation which remains to this day as one of the most iconic music TV shows Britain has ever produced. As famed for its presenter, Whispering Bob Harris, as it was for its esteemed guests, during the 1970s, TOGWT was the only place to get your dose of popular music.
Taking to TOGW, Withers had something special planned with his 1971 now-iconic song. Produced by Booker T. Jones, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ arrived as a major breakthrough moment for the musician as his track went to number one the charts the world over. According to Withers, he was once inspired to write this song after watching the 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses. “They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong,” he said of the characters played by Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in the film. “It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you. It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of.”
Withers, who was working in a factory at the time of writing the song, had initially planned to write more words as part of the third verse but, taking on the advice of fellow musicians, he instead instead decided to repeat the phrase “I know” to dramatic effect. “I was this factory worker puttering around,” Withers said. “So when they said to leave it like that, I left it.”
See the sparkling performance, below.