NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, coming to you from the Southern Studio yet again, y’all.
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I’ve got some Iyrical trivia for ye today. This week we’re looking at “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. Now, this song and Otis Redding’s last hit, “Dock of the Bay,” were both backed up by Booker T and the MGs, but there’s something about the lyrics that they both have in common. What would that be?
And for a change of pace, I’ll have that answer for you DURING the show.
OK, quick: how many times does Bill Withers sing the words “I know” during the bridge of “Ain’t No Sunshine”? Either you know it or you’re pretty good at guessing, because I’m here to keep you distracted while you’re thinking about it.
Bill Withers was the youngest of six children, born on the Fourth of July in 1938, in a small coal-mining town called Slab Fork, in West Virginia. His parents split up when he was three years old, and he was raised by his mother’s family. His father died when he was 13, and when he was 17 he enlisted in the US Navy, where he served for nine years. During that time he picked up his interest in writing and singing songs.
[THREE NIGHTS AND A MORNING in:07]
In 1967 he moved to Los Angeles to work on his music career. His first single was this track, called “Three Nights and a Morning,” and I want you to listen in on it for a minute…
…I wanted you to get a handle on this song because of the way it sounds. It’s got this frantic, freakout soul sound. It’s just frenetic and breathless, and unfortunately it disappeared pretty much without a trace. The other cool thing about this track is that it was produced by Mort Garson. Now, that name might not mean a lot to you, but here’s the thing about that: Garson has one of the weirdest musical resumes you’ll ever see. He’s the guy who wrote “Our Day Will Come” for Ruby and the Romantics, and of course that song was covered a bunch of times, but for awhile he was the go-to producer for artists like Glen Campbell and Mel Tormé, so basically the adult contemporary, easy-listening crowd. But then Garson discovered the Moog Synthesizer, and his entire approach to music changed. He released albums which were dedicated to signs of the zodiac. He had one album that was supposedly designed to encourage plants to grow. He released an electronic version of the music from the show Hair. And he released a satirical version of The Wizard of Oz, called the Wozard of Iz. Here’s an excerpt of a track from that album, called “Killing of the Witch”…
[KILLING OF THE WITCH in:00]
…and I’m telling you all this not to mock Garson—in fact, I kind of dig it when musicians get experimental with sound—but instead to point out that “Three Nights and a Morning” was a track that was assembled by two different people, neither of whom would really do anything much like it ever again. In fact, in that spirit, let me play you a little bit of the flip side of “Three Nights and a Morning”…
[WHAT’LL I DO in:01]
…That track is called “What’ll I Do,” and it’s a cover of an old Irving Berlin tune. You can see that Withers starts with a straight-up rendition but then quickly turns it into a Gospel-like party sound. Now, Withers pulled that trick later on in his career, but almost invariably with the few covers he did, and of course never again with Garson.
So while he was trying to put his music career together, Withers worked as an assembler for several different factories, including Douglas Aircraft, IBM and Ford. In the meantime he was spending his own money making demo tapes, shopping them around and playing in clubs on nights and weekends. Finally in 1970, Withers’ demo tape was received successfully by the owner of Sussex Records, Clarence Avant. Avant signed him to a deal and then assigned Booker T. Jones to work with him on putting an album together. They were originally slated to use four three-hour recording sessions to get the album together, but funding issues made that impossible, and they wound up with only three sessions, with six months between the second and third session. But finish it they did, and the album, titled Just As I Am, was released in May of 1971.
So let’s get specifically into “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Withers has said in interviews that he was inspired by the film Days of Wine and Roses, starring Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. The two stars play a pair of alcoholics who are locked in what today we’d call a co-dependent relationship, spiraling in on each other on the way to rock bottom. But through the film, as Withers notes, they were alternately weak and strong; that is, one would get strong and the other would get weak around the same time. He says, (quote) “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.” (unquote)
And similarly, in the song, the woman he’s singing about may not be the best person for him, but he’s still missing her pretty badly. We know this from a couple of spots in the song. First, we get the last line of each verse, “Anytime she goes away,” which means that these two appear to have an on-again, off-again relationship. And the other part comes after Withers sings all 26 of those “I know”s, the next line is “Hey I oughta leave young thing alone”, which is problematic not because she’s young but because he knows he should walk away, but unfortunately for him, ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone. Did you catch that, incidentally? He sings “I know” 26 times in that break.
Now, why does he sing “I know” 26 times anyway? The bottom line is that it was a scratch lyric. If you’ve been listening to the show for awhile, you know that a scratch lyric is something you stick in when you don’t quite have what you want there, so you put something else in as a placeholder. Perhaps the most famous example would be the Beatles’ “Yesterday” having a working title of “Scrambled Eggs.” That wasn’t really the case, but Paul McCartney had a melody so he plugged in some nonsense lyrics to maintain the cadence, and so we have “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs” and so on. But here’s the thing: after the track was cut, Withers mentioned that he needed to put some lyrics into the song there, and Booker T. and the rest of the band told him “no no, leave it like that.” That was the consensus of everyone in the studio, and when you’re talking about a group of musicians like the M.G.s plus Stephen Stills playing that acoustic guitar, Withers said, (quote) “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 just sort of puttering around. So when their general feeling was, ‘Leave it like that,’ I left it like that.” (unquote) And since he didn’t mention it in that quotation, let me add that Jim Keltner was also there on drums. And this, incidentally, is where “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Dock of the Bay” have something in common from a lyrics standpoint: “Ain’t No Sunshine” uses the “I knows” as a scratch lyric, and the MGs talked him out of changing it. “Dock of the Bay” ends with Otis Redding whistling, because he felt he needed another lyric there. Unfortunately he died in a plane crash three days after recording the song, so they simply finished off the record with the whistling scratch lyric.
Now, the song opens cold, as the expression goes, with him launching right into singing before any of the instruments begin playing. A lot of record labels discourage that sort of thing, because at the time, the disk jockeys would talk up the record. But because Withers was on the Sussex label, he had a lot more artistic freedom than he got when Sussex shut down and he moved to Columbia Records. But the cold opening gives the song a little bit more of an interesting structure, in my opinion.
So as I noted earlier, Withers worked in various factories to support himself while he worked on his music career. In fact, the cover of that first album, Just As I Am, features Withers at his day job at Weber Aircraft, holding his lunch pail. So even as Just As I Am began its initial rise in popularity following its release in May of 1971, he continued to work on assembling the bathrooms in Boeing 747s because he viewed the music industry as being fickle. [HARLEM]
When the single came out in July of 1971, well…you may not be surprised by what I’m about to say. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was the B side of the record. The A side was this track, called “Harlem”…
…does it sound familiar? It should. It’s a slowed down version of his first record, “Three Nights and a Morning.” But the disc jockeys started playing the B side, and it became a huge hit. In fact, when the song finally went gold, Sussex Records presented him with a golden toilet seat to mark the end of his old career and the start of his new one. Chart-wise, the song went to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100, and Number 6 on the R&B chart. It was Top 10 in Canada and Scotland, and that was about it really, although it did chart again in 2009 when one of the contestants on American Idol sang the song. This time it actually reached the British streaming chart, according to Official Charts, topping out at Number 40. But not because of American Idol; it was because a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent performed the song around the same time.
As far as covers go, there are a bunch of them. Michael Jackson covered it the same year for his debut solo album, and it was released as a single in the UK, where it reached Number 8. And that was in the month of September, so that may have been the reason Bill Withers’ version didn’t chart there. Paul McCartney has covered it, Prince, Sting, Kenny Rogers, Tom Jones have all covered it, and then there’s this version:
This is a Polish rock band called Budka Suflera, who translated the song into Polish as “Sen o dolinie” in 1974 but the label rejected the track because it was a foreign song. It finally appeared on a compilation album in 1983 and reached Number 14 there.
In 1991 the Australian band Rockmelons, featuring vocalist Deni Hines, released a cover of the song as the leadoff single from their second album. The song made it to Number 5 there and was certified gold. It also reached the Number 8 position in New Zealand.
In 1999, African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded a cover with Des’ree on main vocals. This version made it to Number 42 in the UK, and may be the only charting version that doesn’t open with the title being sung.
[LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO]
As I mentioned before, there are lots of covers in lots of styles. You can find electronic versions of the song, avant-folk versions, jazz versions—in fact, it was Grover Washington, with whom Withers would team up a few years later—who covered it in 1972. There’s even a version recorded by the heavy metal band Black Label Society, who recorded a mostly acoustic version and released it as a single in 2013. The video is kind of weird but fun, and I’ll link it at the website. But the one thing that these covers all have in common is that they wind up being kind of faithful to Bill Withers’ original recording. And that’s gotta say something about the strength of that original.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we celebrate the New Year with Dan Fogelberg.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.