Classic Tracks: Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine”

Nov 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz


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Bill Withers Just As I Am album cover

In an interview for the Website Songfacts, Bill Withers said that his first hit record, the lush soul ballad “Ain’t No Sunshine,” was inspired by the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, about the toxic relationship of an alcoholic couple. It’s perhaps an unlikely source for such a loving song, but it’s not the only unusual story behind this month’s Classic Track.

Born in 1938, Withers spent his childhood in West Virginia. He lived in the mining town of Slab Fork and then in Beckley with his mother and grandmother; his father died when Withers was only 13. Withers stuttered as a child. He did not develop any musical ambitions until he became an adult. In the 2010 documentary about Withers, Still Bill, the artist’s Navy shipmates recall Withers singing and playing piano while they were stationed in Guam in the late ’50s and early ’60s. It was during this period that Withers began to write songs and think about a music career.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1965, Withers moved to L.A., where he worked assembling airplane toilets for Douglas Aircraft. Meanwhile, he spent his own earnings to record song demos, and looked for a label deal.

Withers was eventually signed to Sussex Records, and the great Booker T. Jones was enlisted to produce the new artist’s debut album, Just as I Am in 1971. Also on the session were two members of the MGs—drummer Al Jackson and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn—plus singer/songwriter Stephen Stills on guitar. The recordings were made in Wally Heider’s Studio 3, then situated in L.A. at the corner of Cahuenga and Selma. The engineer was Bill Halverson, whose credits at that point included such essential records as Crosby Stills and Nash’s massive self-titled debut, Cream’s “Badge,” Tom Jones Sings “She’s a Lady” and CSNY’s Déjà Vu.

“It was Stephen Stills’ studio time that we were using,” Halverson recalls by phone from his home in Nashville. “I was working with Stephen on his first solo record, and he came to me a couple nights before this and said, ‘I’ve got this guy who needs a night of studio time.’ Stephen was hanging with Rita Coolidge, and Booker was marrying [Rita Coolidge’s sister] Priscilla Coolidge, and somehow Booker asked Stephen for some studio time. We just spent the one night.”

In preparation for the session, Halverson had set up Studio 3 so that Withers would be in the center of the room, which Halverson says was an unapologetic re-creation of United Western Studio 3.

“Heider and [United Western owner] Bill Putnam had had a falling out, and tried to one-up each other in different ways,” Halverson says. “United Western Studio 3 was the busiest studio in town, and when Wally sorted out that space was available [next door to his Studio 1], he hired his studio builder and they rented an hour of studio time in Western 3 and measured it. Then they came back and built Heider Studio 3 to be a copy. It was a little longer, a little narrower, but it had a lot of the same wall treatments and the booth was the same. And keep in mind, Wally never had a Studio 2. Just to rub it in, he named his second studio, Studio 3.

“Where I really benefited in that studio was, Wally Heider went to Bones Howe, who was a really busy engineer/producer at the time and was one of Western’s best clients,” Halverson explains. “He said to Bones, ‘What type of equipment do I need to put in here to get you to come over and try the studio?’ So Bones made almost a flip remark that Wally later told me: He wanted 16 UA equalizers, 16 filters, four 1176 limiters, a couple of Pultecs... He gave him this long list, and Wally went out and bought it.

“It was really a wonderful, forgiving studio where I could do stacks of Marshalls on 10 with Cream, but also do acoustic stuff,” Halverson continues. “You could do vocals in the room with a hand mic—I did that with Tom Jones—and get away with it. I didn’t know how good it was till I started using other studios. But that’s also the room where I did the first CSN record and parts of Déjà Vu. I got to use it a lot.”

On Withers’ session, Halverson placed Jackson’s kit near the control room glass, under an overhanging soffitt—again, an emulation of United Western 3—that held the studio playback speakers. “If you tucked the drums as close as you could under that overhang of the big speakers, you were out in the room but you had really good isolation,” Halverson says.

Next to Jackson, along the same wall, was Dunn’s bass rig, and then the studio’s Steinway grand piano. Across the room was Stills’ electric guitar. Halverson says that because Booker T. was in the house, a B3 had been dropped off earlier in the day, but the organ master didn’t play any B3 on “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“When Bill Withers showed up,” Halverson says, “he comes walking in with his guitar and a straight-back chair, like a dining room chair, and asks, ‘Where do I set up?’ I showed him right in the middle of the room, and then he left and he came back in with this platform, a kind of wooden box that didn’t have a bottom. It was about four inches tall, and was maybe 3 foot by 4 foot; it was a fairly large platform, and he set it down in the middle of the room. Then he put his chair on it and got his guitar out, and he’s sitting on top of this box. So I miked him and I miked his guitar, and then I was doing other things—getting sounds together.

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