Bill Withers knew how to tap into deep feelings with a song. Consider his debut single, "Ain't No Sunshine," a gripping, heartbroken tune that turned the miner's son from Slab Fork, West Virginia into a legend of soul.
Withers was nearly 30, with a decade of service in the U.S. Navy, when he headed out west to try to make it as a musician. But the hardworking songwriter knew better than to risk it all for a dream, and kept steady work on factory assembly lines while workshopping demo tapes. Eventually, his tapes drew the attention of Clarence Avant of Sussex Records, who connected Bill with Booker T. Jones to produce his debut album.
Just As I Am was recorded over six months and featured nearly a dozen original, deeply-felt songs that summarized complex feelings - love, loss and community - in deceptively simple ways. "To me, songwriting is you sitting around scratching yourself and something crosses your mind," Withers later said of his process. "There are probably more great stories made up about the writing of songs after they've been written and received, because you've got to say something. I love listening when there's some song like 'Eat My Funky Sweat,' and then somebody makes up this profound story about what inspired him to do it."
OK, so Withers didn't take the process too seriously. But he initially wasn't sure about one of the most powerful moments in "Ain't No Sunshine": when he plaintively sings "I know" 26 times between verses. "I wasn't going to do that, then Booker T. said, 'No, leave it like that,'" he admitted. "I was going to write something there, but there was a general consensus in the studio...They were all these people with all this experience and all these reputations, and I was this factory worker in here just sort of puttering around."
Indeed, Withers was still working at a factory when shooting publicity photos for Just As I Am, and didn't even put in his leave until well after "Sunshine" reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Within a year, though, he'd have his first Grammy Award for Best R&B Song and a gold record for the track - as clear an indication as any of a bright musical career ahead of him.