We Counted the “I Knows” – Bill Wither’s Classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Subsequent Covers
Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” has 26 Iconic “I Knows” in the bridge. The Shirelles had 46 in their cover while Aaron Neville only needed 1. We counted took a stroll down memory lane and counted the “I Knows” in this Bill Wither’s classic.
Disclaimer: All “I Know” counts were done by me while listening to various tracks and I may have missed a few along the way.
I had the pleasure of dropping in and listening to my daughter play a two-hour gig in a Ft. Worth restaurant recently. She played a nice mix of originals and covers. She opened her second set with the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It’s a new cover for her so I was curious how she would handle the song. She added her bluesy rasp to the song which I thought was nice. Then she hit the iconic “I know” lyric. Her choice was to cut the I knows in half and sing the bridge twice during the song. She didn’t cut them exactly in half (I think she sang 18 I knows the second time around). She just seemed to go by feel. It was an interesting take and got me thinking; how many people could really pull off the 26 I knows? I mean this is a one-of-a-kind moment in music. Could others sing I know 26 times and make it so gut-wrenching? I didn’t know. So, I decided to check.
Later the same year, in 1971, that Wither’s released his song Nancy Wilson covered the song with an orchestra. She actually sang 28 I knows. They were not energetic. There was a pause after 20 and the last eight could hardly be heard. The cover was pretty good, but the I knows were lifeless.
The Temptations took a shot at the song in 1972. Remember this was an era when songs would be covered right away hoping to capture different segments of the radio listening audience or to fill a back side of an album. The Temptations went soulful/jazz heavy on the electronic keyboards. In fact, lyrics were largely missing for the first four minutes of the seven-minute track. At the 5:45 mark, a string of 23 I knows was sung rolling up and down. There is certainly more emotion here than the Nancy Wilson song, but this version doesn’t have the yearning and focused direction of Wither’s classic. It’s interesting, but the vibe to too chill.
Also in 1972, Michael Jackson released his first solo album and he covered “A’int No Sunshine.” This is really an awful song complete with a thirteen-year-old opening the song trying to talk …sexy? The vocals are classic young Michael. The orchestration is too much (a full string section). The song did hit number 8 on the pop charts. Michael sang something like 12 I knows. The ninth I know was “I……know, no, no, no.” This cover was from an album with some amazing songs on it. But a thirteen-year-old boy with a childish voice (though amazing), pleading for a woman just doesn’t work (or hold up over time).
From 1971 to 1974 the song was covered at least 24 times. The best cover of this era was from blues icon Freddy King. Freddy chose to skip the I knows and go with a very bright/not so bluesy guitar solo for the bridge. Other acts to cover the song in this era include Isaac Hayes -Live (26), The Shirelles (42, yes 42!), Betty Wright (19), Nancy Sinatra (24), Tom Jones (24), and Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose (2 before changing to “I got to know” and letting the background singers take over the I knows).
Notable covers since 1974 include Al Jarreau (26), Bobby Blue Bland (12 – in four riffs of three I knows), Crystal Gayle (28 – in four riffs of seven I knows), Paul McCartney (16), Joe Cocker (1, though background singers do sing some I knows), Sting and David Sanborn (24), Michael Bolton(36 – in two riffs of 16 I knows), Aaron Neville (1), Joan Osborn (20), Wynonna (17), Neil Diamond (12), and Passenger(20). The song still finds its way onto albums in 2022 though mostly through smaller indie bands.
The I knows are more than a count. If it was the count, then The Shirelles version would be the best. The I knows also arrive at different times of each cover. Some I knows arrive at the one-minute mark and some well past the two-minute mark of songs that are essential in many cases the same length. The I knows is about the emotion and no one has ever done it as well as Bill Withers.
For the details behind how 26 I knows got into the song in the first place check out Ain't No Sunshine by Bill Withers - Songfacts at Songfacts.com.