In a Songfacts interview with Bill Withers
, he explained how this song came about: "I was watching a movie called Days Of Wine And Roses
(1962) with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both alcoholics who were alternately weak and strong. 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."
This was Withers' first hit. After spending nine years in the US Navy, he had a job at a factory making parts for airplanes when he was introduced to Booker T. Jones from Booker T. & the MG's
. Booker was an elite session musician with Stax Records, where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and many other soul legends recorded. He brought in some other top-notch musicians, including Stephen Stills on lead guitar, and produced this album for Withers, who was 32 when it was recorded.
This was released as the B-side to another song called "Harlem." Disc jockeys played this as the single instead and it became a hit.
All the instruments on this track are acoustic. Personnel are:
Withers: guitar, vocal
Booker T. Jones: keyboards
Stephen Stills: guitar
Jim Keltner: drums
Bobbye Hall: percussion
The part where Withers repeats "I know, I know," has become a very recognizable piece of the song, but it wasn't what he had in mind. Withers told Songfacts: "I wasn't going to do that, then Booker T. said, 'No, leave it like that.' I was going to write something there, but there was a general consensus in the studio. 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."
The MGs were the backup band for Otis Redding when he recorded "Dock Of The Bay
" in 1967. The famous whistling in the third verse of that song was something Redding did to fill time until he could fill it in with some words. He never had the chance because he died in a plane crash three days later. The whistling stayed, just like Withers' verse of "I knows."
On its first release, this song did not chart in the UK, but Michael Jackson's cover hit #8 there in 1972. Withers original version eventually made its first entry into the UK singles chart in May 2009 after being performed on Britain's Got Talent by contestant Shaun Smith.
Withers performed this on an episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test, a British TV show that ran from 1971-1987 and featured a variety of musical guests. In the '70s, the show was shot in a small studio with no audience, which resulted in more relaxed performances where the artists could concentrate on their music. Withers' appearance is considered a classic from the show, and was included in a DVD compilation released in 2001.
Won the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1972.
This was used in the movies Girls Town (1996), Notting Hill (1999), Old School (2003) and Munich (2005). TV shows to use the song include Monk (2005), CSI: NY (2009) and Scandal (2013).
Besides Michael Jackson, this has been covered by many artists in a wide range of styles. Paul McCartney, Isaac Hayes, Lionel Hampton, Prince, Sting, Kenny Rogers, Tom Jones
and Lighthouse Family have all recorded it. It was also interpolated by rapper DMX for his 2001 song "No Sunshine."
Sax player Grover Washington became the first person to cover one of Withers' songs when he did an instrumental version shortly after Withers released his. In 1981, Washington and Withers teamed up to record "Just The Two Of Us."
There is no introduction on this song, as the vocals come in right away. This was thought of as bad for marketing purposes, as it meant disc jockeys couldn't talk it up, but it gave the song a more interesting structure. Withers' label Sussex Records gave him plenty of artistic freedom, which he lost when Sussex folded and he moved to Columbia. In the 2009 documentary Still Bill, Withers explains, "If nobody throws all their rules at you, you might make a song with no introduction."
The metal band Black Label Society recorded this song and issued it as a single in 2013. Band members John DeServio and Zakk Wylde decided to cover it after seeing a 1974 episode of the TV show The Midnight Special
, where Withers performed the song.
Black Label Society made an unusual video for the song
featuring anthropomorphic horses. In our interview with Zakk Wylde
, he said that he got a kick out of reading the negative comments about the video from folks who didn't get the joke, comparing the hostility to what his professional wrestler friends get when they turn heel.
Stevie Wonder inducted Bill Withers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. At the ceremony, Wonder performed this song with Withers sitting next to him on stage. Withers decided not to perform at the ceremony, although he appeared midway through Wonder and John Legend's performance of "Lean On Me
" to join on vocals.
In the 2015 Shawn Mendes song "I Know What You Did Last Summer
," he and his duet partner Camila Cabello sing "I know" sections similar to how Withers did in "Ain't No Sunshine." Wither was given a songwriting credit because the vocal is so similar.