by Sean Smith
On Monday America celebrated its 240th birthday. However, that was not the only noteworthy birthday to be celebrated that day.
The legendary R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers turned 78 years old on July 4. The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has not released an original album or song since 1985, however his name looms as large in the industry today as it did during the height of his career.
Bill Withers entered the music industry in 1970 when he recorded his debut album Just as I Am, which would be released in 1971. An album that had the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” as its first single. Perhaps as improbable as the immediate success for Withers on his first single, was his path to stardom. He grew up as the youngest of six children in rural Slab Fork, West Virginia. His father, who died when he was just 13, was a coal miner. In order to leave Slab Fork, Bill Withers joined the United States Navy as an aircraft mechanic at 18. While he was enlisted he started to sing and write songs. After his time in the Navy, he moved to Southern California to pursue a career in music. He got a job working at an aircraft parts factory to pay the bills, and used some of his income from his day job to record a demo.
After recording a demo Bill Withers shopped it around to major labels, but none of them signed him to a record deal. However, it did catch the attention of indie label Sussex Records, who signed him after being impressed by his songwriting ability. He then went into the studio to work on what would become his first album with Booker T. Jones who used to be at Stax Records. Jones put together a pretty solid group of musicians to lay down the instrumentation for the album, including the likes of Stephen Stills. When Bill Withers was recording his debut album he continued to work at the aircraft parts factory. The photo that was used for the album cover was even shot at his work during his lunch break, hence the lunch box in his hand. Withers would continue to work on his music and at the factory simultaneously, that is until he was laid off from his day job at the factory. Lucky for him, his talent at writing and performing music made for a pretty fail safe career path.
The first single to be released from Bill Wither’s Just as I Am album was a song called “Harlem.” The song didn’t get the desired airplay on the radio, but that is because radio DJ’s instead decided to play the song on the B side of the single, a song called “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
In an interview with the website Songfacts.com, Bill Withers talked about how he came about writing “Ain’t No Sunshine:”
“I was watching a movie called Days Of Wine And Roses(1962) with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. 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.”
In that interview he also addressed how the repetitive “I Know, I Know” phrasing made it into the song, and whether it was originally left in the song as merely a placeholder for the time being.
“I wasn’t going to do that, then Booker T said, ‘No, leave it like that.’ I was going to write something there, but there was a general consensus in the studio. It was an interesting thing because I’ve got all these guys that were already established, and I was working in the factory at the time. Graham Nash was sitting right in front of me, just offering his support. Stephen Stills was playing and there was Booker T and Al Jackson and Donald Dunn – all of the MGs except Steve Cropper. They were all these people with all this experience and all these reputations, and I was this factory worker in here just sort of puttering around. So when their general feeling was, ‘leave it like that,’ I left it like that.”
“Ain’t No Sunshine” would reach commercial success as it charted as high as the number six position on the U.S. R&B chart, and performed even better on the more mainstream Hot 100 — reaching the number three position.
So in celebration of the legendary Bill Withers turning 78 on Monday, this week we remember his breakout 1971 hit “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Enjoy.
“Ain’t No Sunshine”
From Just As I Am
Sussex Records, Inc./Buddah Records