Paul Fitzpatrick: London, June 2022
In 1971, when Bill Withers, already in his thirties, recorded his signature tune, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, he was still gainfully employed in a factory making toilets for Boeing 747’s.
Withers who grew up with a debilitating stutter had only picked up the guitar a few years earlier. Inspired to play after attending a Lou Rawls gig, he was impressed that the soul star could collect a $2,000 fee for 90 min’s work, as well as having his pick of the attractive female fans in attendance.
Driven to change his life for the better, Withers bought a second hand guitar from a pawn shop, taught himself to play and started writing his own songs.
He saved up to make a rough demo which he hawked around LA until an independent label recognised his talent and hooked him up with producer Booker T. Jones (from Booker T & the MG’s fame) to record his first album.
Withers, who at this point had never set foot in a recording studio was intimidated by the environment and the established session players assembled, and on the first day of recording ambled up to Booker T to ask him who was going to be singing the songs he’d written.
“You are” replied Booker T.
Unnerved, and out of his comfort zone, Withers found it tough to relax until Graham Nash who was at the sessions, encouraged Withers to chill-out and bolstered his confidence by telling him that ‘he had no idea just how good he was‘.
Armed with a notebook of all the songs he’d written to this point, 10 tracks were selected and the album was recorded in a few short sessions. The picture on the album sleeve was taken during a lunch break at the toilet factory, Withers posing lunch box in hand.
One of the songs on the album, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, had been inspired by a movie Withers had watched on TV called ‘Days of Wine & Roses’, starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick about a doomed relationship.
The song was actually unfinished and a verse short when he came to record it so as a vocal placeholder Withers spent the entire 3rd verse repeating the words ”I know”, however, when they heard the end result they liked it so much that they kept it as is.
As the album’s stand out track it was released as the debut single, winning the 1972 Grammy for the best R&B song and propelling Withers into the mainstream.
The song crossed over, storming the pop charts, and when it went gold on its way to selling a million copies, Withers was presented with a gold toilet seat by his record label, as a symbol of how far he’d come in such a short space of time.
Withers next album released a year later, was primarily made up of songs from his notebook that hadn’t made it onto the first album, and included two top 10 hits, ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Use Me’ .
Withers would go on to record six more albums and win another two Grammy’s.
In 1988 I was fortunate enough to see Bill Withers in concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. I was immediately taken by how relaxed and engaging he was, sharing stories between songs and charming the audience.
He ran through all his classics, was note perfect, and it all seemed so effortless to him.
As we watched him perform with the audience in the palm of his hand, we had no idea that this would be his last tour and one of his last ever live performances.
He would drop out of the music scene soon after; weary of record label constraint’s, and frustrated that they spent more budget and energy promoting a novelty album by Mr T from The A Team than his latest work.
Withers was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and although he attended he didn’t perform, instead, asking his friend Stevie Wonder to perform ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ while he sat by his side.
The song has become a standard and there are of course multiple cover versions from Herb Alpert to UFO but two of the best are live performances that have been captured on camera.
The aforementioned Stevie Wonder’s performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and an Unplugged version by Paul McCartney with Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band on vocals and McCartney on drums.
Bill Withers passed away in 2020, aged 81, but his legacy and his signature song live on.