Say that Bill Withers created a few of Soul/R&B’s most memorable songs ever, and I’d say “I know.” Say that he was an extremely uncharacteristic success story, and I’d say “I know” again. Say “I know” 24 more times (for a total of 26) and you’ll equal the number of times Withers said “I know” consecutively in the 3rd verse of his Grammy-winning song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine.’ Within just 15 seconds. That’s a rate of 1.73 uses of the two-word phrase “I know” per second (or saying “I know” every .576 seconds, if you prefer). Heady stuff, I know.
But both the song and its artist are certainly noteworthy for other reasons. Withers’ career as a singer-songwriter spanned from 1970 to 1985 and included his recordings of such major hits as ‘Lean On Me,’ ‘Use Me,’ ‘Just The Two Of Us,’ ‘Lovely Day,’ and of course the aforementioned ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ which was his first single on his first album in 1971. At the time that he wrote the song, Withers, then already 31 years old, was working in a factory and shopping demo tapes made at his own expense in his spare time. But he wasn’t just working in any factory, he was working at one that made toilet seats for 747’s, a distinctive job Withers actually kept for some time even after the song’s success because he considered the music business too fickle and called himself just “a factory worker puttering around.” The cover of the debut album on which ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ appeared, Just As I Am, featured Withers pictured at his job at Weber Aircraft holding his lunch box. Years later after the song went gold (one of three Withers tunes to do so) his record company allegedly presented Withers with a golden toilet seat. Pretty cheeky.
The song itself had some rather notable participants as well. It was produced and arranged by Booker T. Jones, bandleader of Memphis soul instrumental masters Booker T. & The M.G.’s, whose luscious string arrangements, beginning at the :28-second mark, change the entire feel of the song. Jones also utilized bandmates Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr. on bass and drums, the same rhythm section from the famed M.G.’s. And that acoustic guitar heard right from the opening seconds, that’s none other than Stephen Stills.
Withers’ unlikely career in popular music culminated in 2015 with his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, with a speech delivered by noted fan Stevie Wonder. The reticent Withers was said to have been stunned when he learned of his inclusion, even stating with factory worker modesty, “I see it as an award of attrition. What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write some songs that people could identify with,” he continued, before at least allowing, “I guess I don’t think I’ve done too bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.” That’s some well-expressed humility related to some beautifully expressed songs.
And so, as is surely likely to happen someday, if anyone ever says to you, “Are you aware Bill Withers repeats a phrase 26 straight times in ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’?” I suggest you just say “Yes…I know.”
(A bonus very chill live version. Make sure to check out the drummer. I saw an online commenter note, ‘The drummer definitely knows where she is.’)