Ask any male contemporary soul/R&B singer from [artist id=”1231683″]Justin Timberlake[/artist] to [artist id=”1270″]Usher[/artist] to name one of his biggest influences, and chances are he’ll say [artist id=”19189″]Bill Withers[/artist].
Now, you can add “American Idol” contestant Kris Allen to the list. On a night when the nine finalists could choose any song from a list of the most popular iTunes downloads, Allen went with Withers’ Grammy-winning 1971 smash, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a tune that put Withers on the map. It has been covered hundreds of times by artists such as Prince, Timberlake, Michael Jackson, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, and DMX sampled it in 2001’s “No Sunshine.”
The song was Withers’ first hit, and it charted when the then-32-year-old Navy veteran was working at a factory making airplane parts. The all-acoustic arrangement was overseen by soul legend Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MG’s, and it features guitar work from Crosby, Still & Nash member Stephen Stills. The part of the tune where Withers repeats the phrase, “I know, I know” more than 20 times, was originally just a place holder until Withers could come up with more lyrics, but Jones liked it so much, he urged the singer to leave it in. The hypnotizing refrain became the song’s signature moment.
In an interview with SongFacts.com, Withers said the dark lyrics were inspired by a 1962 movie called “Days of Wine and Roses,” starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, about a pair of struggling alcoholics.
“It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison,” he explained. “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.”
The tune, which first appeared on Withers’ 1971 debut, Just As I Am, won the Best R&B Song Grammy in 1972 and was the first of many hits for Withers, including “Lean on Me,” “Use Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.”
On Tuesday night’s “Idol,” Allen said he picked the song because he was in search of a “signature moment” and it would allow him to play piano instead of guitar.
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