The late Bill Withers was nothing short of an icon. His deep, husky voice is one of the most instantly recognisable in the whole of music. Soulful, introspective and an 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.
Withers was inspired to write the song after watching the 1963 drama, Days of Wine and Roses, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Of the ideas that underpinned the song, he explained: “They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. 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.”
Aside from the genius of the songwriting and the power of Withers’ voice, there was another factor that marked the song out as iconic, but something that many people are unaware of. The band who played on the song and album was something of a supergroup.
Firstly, the record was produced by none other than Booker T. Jones, of Booker T. & The M.G.’S fame. Jones also devised the swooning string section that lifts the track. Furthermore, M.G.’s members Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. also played bass and drums, respectively.
The track also featured another icon, Stephen Stills. The ex-Buffalo Springfield and CSNY man’s input on the record is brilliant but barely recognisable. His jazz-inspired guitar part is the warm, electric guitar that comes in after the first verse, it’s almost hidden in the mix. The story of how he came to play on the record is an interesting one as well.
After he was signed to Sussex Records and Jones had been enlisted as producer, the sessions for the album were underway. The sessions for ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ took place at Wally Heider’s Studio 3 in Los Angeles. These sessions were engineered by Bill Halverson, one of the most sought after engineers at the time. His credits included Cream’s ‘Badge’, Tom Jones’ ‘She’s a Lady’, CSNY’S Déjà Vu and CSN’s self-titled debut.
It turns out, Stephen Stills’ influence helped the now-iconic track to come to life. In a 2012 interview with Mix, Halverson revealed: “It was Stephen Stills’ studio time that we were using.”
Halverson explained: “I was working with Stephen on his first solo record, and he came to me a couple of nights before this and said, ‘I’ve got this guy who needs a night of studio time.’ Stephen was hanging with Rita Coolidge, and Booker was marrying (Rita Coolidge’s sister) Priscilla Coolidge, and somehow Booker asked Stephen for some studio time. We just spent the one night.”
At that time in music, connections were what got you noticed. It’s a dizzying fact that many of our favourite records would not have existed without the influence of chance. Furthermore, of Stills‘ understated but exceptional guitar playing on the track, Halverson said: “He’s playing really jazz, Wes Montgomery-type fills”.
Although he is largely drowned out by the majestic string section, Stills can be heard on the track; you just really have to concentrate to make it out. Halverson said: “You can hear just a little bit of Stephen’s chords toward the end.”
Listen to ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ below.