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

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


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Bill Halverson

Bill Halverson

“But then he calls me over and he points down to the box and says, ‘You gotta mike the box.’ Well, the way I was trained, you serve the artist, whatever the artist needs. So I got a couple other mics and I miked the box, the place down near the floor, next to this platform.

“And now, when you listen to ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ you know that all that tapping that goes on [while Withers sings] ‘I know I know I know’ all through it, actually, that’s him tapping his feet on the box, which is actually more intricate than the guitar on that track. He had evidently rehearsed that in his living room, maybe for years.”

Speaking of the “I know I know” parts, a widely circulated story asserts that Withers, at least at one time, thought he should replace that bit with additional lyrics, but his producer and band convinced him that the song is more powerful with the “I know”s. Halverson has no recollection of this conversation going on in the studio, however. Nor does he remember any discussion about the song’s lack of an intro, which is another unique aspect of the arrangement. In Still Bill, Withers talks about the fact that being green as an artist may have worked for him on that score; he didn’t know the unspoken rules that he may have broken by simply launching into “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone...”

Back in ’71, Halverson’s go-to mics in Heider Studio 3 were Shure 546s, the precursor to the SM57. He used a Shure on Withers’ vocal, with an EV windscreen. “My normal setup was to run the Shure through a [Universal Audio] 1176 and just limit it a little bit, and no extra outboard EQ. The EQ on the console was really good, and I may have added a little on the top end.”

The console in Heider Studio 3 was a custom board designed by Frank DiMedio. With twenty-twenty hindsight, Halverson says, “You didn’t know what you had until years later, when we didn’t have all that punch of old analog and tube stuff. But actually, even later as Frank used less tubes and went along with the times, he was still always able to keep really fat, open consoles.”

The session was tracked live to a 3M 24-track machine, using Scotch tape, which Halverson says has generally held up really well over time. Most of the other mics were Shures as well: on the kit, on Dunn’s amp supplementing a DI, and yet another on Stills’ guitar amp, though Stills’ playing is difficult to hear over the strings on the final track. “He’s playing really jazz, Wes Montgomery-type fills,” Halverson says. “You can hear just a little bit of Stephen’s chords toward the end.”

After that one-night session, which also included the more spare-sounding R&B hit “Grandma’s Hands,” Withers’ sessions happened in fits and starts, with a six-month break somewhere in the middle because the label was short on funds. Some time after the live band recording of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the string parts, arranged by Jones and recorded by Terry Manning, were overdubbed onto the track.

“When I hear it now, I can still tell that most of it is live,” Halverson says. “You can hear the roominess of the drums. You can tell that the box and Withers and the guitar are probably 5 feet from the drums, with no baffling in between. Leakage can be your friend, and it’s a nice room sound. It’s just a gathering in somebody’s living room to me...with loud strings.”

Strings and all, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a massive debut for Withers. It went to Number 3, and won the 1971 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. Withers scored several more Top 40 hits in subsequent years, including, of course, the Number One “Lean on Me” in ’72. However, Withers’ talent and love of music were eventually overtaken by his growing distaste for the record business. He hasn’t released an album since 1985.

Bill Halverson, however, has had a long, fruitful career. He continued to engineer and produce into the 2000s, and has served as a lecturer for the Recording Workshop (Chillicothe, Ohio) for 30-plus years, sharing the benefit of his experience with new engineers.

“One of the points that I continue to make when I lecture is that, no matter how much technology we have, you need to get in there and record a group of people singing and playing together—whether it’s rock ’n’ roll or bluegrass or a church choir or a symphony,” Halverson says. “That’s what moves me. Get in there with that magic; you won’t understand it until you try.”

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