Story of the song: Ain’t no Sunshine by Bill Withers

Withers focused on intimate songs about very human experiences (Alamy)
Withers focused on intimate songs about very human experiences (Alamy)

At 32, Bill Withers, originally from rural Slab Fork, West Virginia, was something of a latecomer to a world dominated by twentysomething performers. He had spent nine years in the US navy before taking a job installing lavatories on Boeing 747s.

In 1970 he signed with the Hollywood independent Sussex Records and set about recording his first album. On paper, he seemed an unlikely prospect. On vinyl, his strategy of “simple yet sophisticated” couldn’t fail. “Simple is memorable,” said Withers. “If something’s too complicated, you’re not going to walk around humming it to yourself because it’s too hard to remember. It’s very difficult to make things simple and understandable.”

His early demo bounced around various labels in the late Sixties, until it reached the ears of the Stax keyboard player and producer, Booker T Jones. Jones saw the potential and brought in some top-drawer musicians, including Al Jackson and Donald Dunn from his band, The MGs, plus the guitarist Stephen Stills. Together they cut what would become Withers’s debut, Just As I Am. The launch single was a pounding summer anthem, “Harlem”. It didn’t quite hit the hot spot, however, so DJs flipped the record and instead pushed the laidback soul of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.

Withers’s trademark hook is a repetitive ad-lib, “I know, I know, I know”, which enabled him to show off his breath control. “I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “I was going to write something there.” But Jones told him to keep it in, and Withers felt he ought to comply. “They were all these people with all this experience and all these reputations, and I was this factory worker.” The song was a Billboard hit for Withers and made the UK charts in the hands of a teenage Michael Jackson. It won a Grammy for best R&B song in 1971, and lives on: in 1991 Paul McCartney released a live version and in 2001 it was sampled by the rapper DMX on “No Sunshine”.