One of the great songs of the ’70s and great voices of R&B was making itself known for the first time this week back in 1971. Bill Withers‘ first hit single, “Ain’t No Sunshine” hit the Billboard top 40. It would go on to get as high as #3, help his debut album Just As I Am, go gold and set the stage for even greater commercial success the next year with his Still Bill album and his #1 single, “Lean on Me.” It also won him the Grammy Award for Best R&B song, something he’d do twice again – for 1981, with “Just the Two of Us” (a song listed as Grover Washington Jr. but which Withers sang on) and oddly enough, in 1987 for “Lean on Me”, which had been made into a hit once again for Club Nouveau.
The upbeat Withers was far from the run-of-the-mill pop star. Raised in West Virginian coal country, he only began to have an interest in singing during his stint in the Navy and didn’t sign a record deal (to Sussex Records, a label distributed by A&M) until 1970, by which time he was already in his 30s. Even then he kept his day job, making toilets for Douglas Aircraft! “Not a lot of people got me,” he would later say. “Here I was, this Black guy playing acoustic guitar.” Although on this particular record, the guitar is played by one Stephen Stills. Not bad for a first try at making music!
Strangely enough, the great, aching love song was inspired not by a gal who’d gone away, but by a movie about drunks. He got the basic idea for “Ain’t No Sunshine” one day while watching the movie Days of Wine and Roses. “Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you,” he mused.
It’s a good thing he watched that movie, and that some radio DJs back then were curious. When first released, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was the B-side to the rather forgettable “Harlem” but enough DJs flipped it over for this to become the hit, the tune which made Withers a star. “Ain’t No Sunshine” has been used to great effect in movies including Notting Hill (in which Hugh Grant’s character walks around London forlornly missing Julia Roberts’ character who’d gone back to the U.S.) and went gold as a single. According to Casey Kasem, when it did that, Sussex Records gave him not a gold record, but a gold toilet to commemorate it . It was finally time for Bill to quit his job making airplane toilets!