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.
If you’re a Bowie fan you probably have a selection of his albums, tapes, cd’s and downloads in your music collection…. hit-after-hit stretching across six decades from 1969’s Space Oddity to 2016’s Blackstar.
For a few years though, until his WOW moment on TOTP in 1972, as implausible as it sounds, Bowie was on course to be a one-hit-wonder…. just like Thunderclap Newman with ‘Something in the Air’ or Norman Greenbaum with ‘Spirit in the Sky’
Then along came Ziggy Stardust and the rest as they say is history. Bowie went on to become arguably the most influential artist of the 70s…..continually reinventing his sound and persona and influencing the tastes of a generation along the way.
As an example of the latter, on October 1974 David Live was released, it was a decent album showcasing Bowie’s transition from Glam to Soul with a great version of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock on Wood‘, but what captured my attention as much as the music was the powder blue suit DB wore on the cover.
Up until this point Bowie’s wardrobe had consisted of elaborate Japanese jumpsuits, kimonos and leotards.
Distinctive, perhaps, but not the kind of thing you could buy in Top Man and wear to Shuffles night club on a dreich Saturday night in Glasgow!
Bowie’s cool new look was something we could relate to on the other hand, so on our next pay-day, a few of us travelled to Glasgow city centre to Jackson the tailors to order our own made to measure version of the tin-flute Bowie sported on the David Live record sleeve.
After a few weeks the suits were ready and when we hit the town that Saturday night we all felt ‘gallus’ in our high-waisted trousers, and double breasted jackets, as did half the male population of Glasgow, who seemingly all had the same idea!
I was pretty much hooked from the minute I saw Bowie perform Starman on TOTP in 72 and stayed a fan all the way through his career. I loved his 70s personas and of course the music, particular the Thin White Duke period which frustratingly he never talked much about… owing to the fact that he had absolutely no recall of making the Station to Station album!
In fact he was so bonkers and strung out during this period (75-76) that he reportedly kept his own urine in a fridge. This in part was due to a falling out with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page….. Bowie became paranoid that Page (well known for dabbling in the occult) would engage some form of black-magic against him if he got hold of his bodily fluids.
Based in LA and weighing in at a meagre 7 stone, his diet at the time consisted of milk, peppers and heaps of Colombian marching powder. It’s well documented that Bowie fled this life of excess to regain health and sanity in Europe, specifically Berlin, and by the release of Heroes in 1977 he was in a much better place, both physically and mentally
I actually came into The Starman’s orbit very briefly in 1983.
I was working at Levis and we were developing a campaign to promote our 501 Jeans, which at the time, we couldn’t give away in the UK, in fact the only European country who sold them in any volume was Sweden.
UK retailers didn’t want to stock them as they were more expensive than regular Levis jeans and they reasoned that consumers didn’t like the American fit (low waist, straight leg).
Nonetheless, our chiefs in San Francisco had planned a global strategy around the 501. It was the original 5 pocket jean and the main point of difference for the brand in the US, where Levis was coming under threat from designer brands like Calvin Klein…. so we had no choice but to try and make it work in Europe.
A team was put together tasked with coming up with innovative ideas to support the 501 campaign in Europe and as a first step we came up with the simple idea of getting contemporary icons to wear 501’s by highlighting the fact that it had been the jean of choice for James Dean & Brando in the 50’s and guys like Springsteen were now wearing them.
It was a classic ‘seeding’ strategy which more or less consisted of gifting product to opinion leaders (musicians, actors, sportsmen, models, etc), in order to get the product seen on the right people.
It’s a concept that can work pretty well if all the planets align.
As an example…
In early 1983 we sent some Levis denim jackets to an up and coming band coming out of Dublin called U2. The lead singer Bono cut the sleeves off his jacket and wore it relentlessly. The band released the albums War and Under a Blood Red Sky and 83 became U2’s big breakout year hence Bono was everywhere… wearing his self-customised, sleeveless Levis jacket
As an example of seeding at work – around this time met I Charlie Nicholas in a Glasgow bar as we had a mutual friend, when Charlie heard I worked for Levis he asked me if I could get him a Levis denim jacket “to cut the sleeves off… same as Bono“.
Charlie wasn’t the only one with the same idea and within months, retailers started selling out of our denim jackets, sales tripled and we eventually had to increase our jacket production and develop our own sleeveless version.
The other avenue we explored was official sponsorship… ‘let’s get influential artists to wear and promote Levis by sponsoring their tours’. Everyone does this now but it was a new concept back then.
This was trickier than you’d think… some people in the room actually thought it would be a good idea to approach the gods of double-denim, Status Quo and there were a couple of Gary Numan fans in there as well… however to most it was clear we needed someone with gravitas, credibility and a wide appeal.
After some debate and research we discovered that Bowie was scheduled to launch his Serious Moonlighttour in support of his new album – Let’s Dance, so after some discussion he became the prime candidate.
To be honest we weren’t over optimistic that he’d go for it as he wasn’t big on commercial ventures but he liked the brand and the sponsorship helped to finance the tour… so the mighty DB came on board.
The concept worked so well that we repeated it over the next few years with tours and one-off events, but the tipping point for the brand in Europe came when we launched the famous 501 Laundrette ad with Nick Kamen in 1985, which also propelled ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ to number one in the charts.
Ironically, the same retailers who claimed they couldn’t sell 501’s in 1983 were now begging for as much stock as they could get their hands on….
One of the conditions of most tour-sponsorship deals is for the acts to meet customers post-gig however we knew Bowie was never going to do meet and greets. Sting and Ultravox on the other hand were contracted to meet customers and prize winners briefly after their gigs, which they mostly did with good grace, particularly Midge Ure who was extremely affable.
My brief Bowie moment came when he popped into our London office to pick out some jeans and shirts, he looked incredibly healthy and was friendly and charming. He signed a few bits and pieces for some of us including a tour programme and the Let’s Dance album (pics below ) before making his exit.
In truth, I struggled a bit with the 90’s Bowie, particularly the Tin Machine period but I got back on board in the noughties…. a return to form, spring-boarded by his stellar Glastonbury performance in 2000 when he decided to give the people what they wanted…. a set-list made up of his best songs.
Although I’d been a big fan in the 70s I had never seen Bowie live and the first time I saw him perform was when we took some customers to see his Serious Moonlight gig at Murrayfield in Edinburgh in June 83.
The next time I saw him perform live was the most memorable. It was at the Hammersmith Odeon in October 2002, his first return to that venue since the shock July 1974 retirement announcement when he ‘broke up the band’ live on stage…. to their complete bemusement.
“Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”
It helped that we had fantastic tickets for that show, centre stage, six rows from the front. I’ve no idea how long Bowie was on stage for but it must have been close to 3 hours… he played 33 songs starting with Life on Mars, finishing with Ziggy Stardust and included a song he’d only ever played live once before… the majestic Bewlay Brothers from Hunky Dory.
I also saw Bowie the following year at Wembley arena on his last live date in London. He seemed so fit and healthy at 56 but six months later whilst still on the same gruelling ‘Reality’ tour he had a heart attack on stage in Hamburg and that proved to be his last ever gig.
He released an album in 2013, The Last Day, which raised hopes that he was fit and well but it all went quiet again, and then out of nowhere a new album – Blackstar dropped 3 years later on his 69th birthday, this was the encouraging news we’d all been waiting for… maybe we would even see him play live again?
He died two days after its release on the 10th of January.
There was much outpouring of grief when the news broke, he meant so much to so many people and it’s probably the only celebrity that I’ve ever felt sustained grief over. I had grown up with Bowie from age 13, my kids had grown up listening to him, he’d been a fixture in my life for 45 years, and suddenly he wasn’t there any more.
But even in the end Bowie did the most Bowie thing ever, bowing out on his own terms with an innovative, out-of-the-blue, jazz-infused album that we knew nothing about until the day of its release.
If you listen to the lyrics it’s an album made by a man who wasn’t ready to leave us but knew he wasn’t going to be with us for long. To this day I still find it hard to listen to that album…….
‘Something happened on the day he died Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried’ “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”
All hail the Starman, we’ll never see his like again…..
My Bowie top 20 changes all the time, but for anyone who’s interested here’s this weeks selection….