Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, from his 1971 album Just As I Am, to all intents and purposes comes across as a lovesick paean to a departed lover but the much acclaimed song, which won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song at the 1972 Grammy Awards, was actually written about the film Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a tale of love amidst alcohol addiction starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
In the film, public relations man Joe Clay (played by Jack Lemmon) meets and falls in love with Kirsten Arnesen (played by Lee Remick), a secretary. Kirsten doesn’t drink until Joe introduces her to social drinking. Although reluctant, after her first few Brandy Alexanders, she admits that drinking “made her feel good”. Kirsten’s father (played by Charles Bickford) is dubious of the relationship but the two marry and Kirsten gives birth to a daughter named Debbie.
Joe goes from the “two Martini lunch” to full blown alcoholism. His alcoholism affects his work as he and Kirsten both succumb to the pleasures and pain of addiction, resulting in Joe being demoted due his poor performance. Joe is sent out of town on business and Kirsten finds that the best way to pass the time is to drink, and drink plentifully. One afternoon, whilst she is drunk, Kirsten causes a fire in the couples’ apartment almost killing herself and their child. Joe, meanwhile, eventually gets fired from his Public Relations job and goes from job to job over the next several years.
One day, Joe passes a bar and stares at his reflection in the window. He goes home and says to his wife, “I walked by Union Square Bar. I was going to go in. Then I saw myself, my reflection in the window and I thought, ‘I wonder who that bum is’. And then I saw it was me. Now look at me. I’m a bum. Look at me! Look at you. You’re a bum. Look at you. And look at us. Look at us. C’mon, look at us! See? A couple of bums”.
As a result of their realisation that they have a drinking problem, Joe and Kirsten work together in Kirsten’s father’s business and manage to remain sober for a while. However, the power of addiction is too strong and after returning to heavy drinking, Joe destroys his father-in-law’s greenhouse and plants whilst searching for a bottle of liquor that he had stashed there.
Joe is committed to a sanatorium wearing a straight jacket and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, a dedicated sponsor named Jim Hungerford (played by Jack Klugman) and regular AA meetings, Joe finally becomes sober for a while. Joe tries to help Kirsten to overcome her addiction also but instead just ends up drinking again, being so desperate for a drink that he breaks into a liquor store and steals a bottle. This results in another trip to the sanatorium, where he is stripped down and tied to a treatment table.
Jim warns Joe that he must remain sober, even if it means staying away from his wife. He explains to Joe that alcoholics often demonstrate obsessive behaviour, pointing out that Kirsten’s previous love of chocolates may have been the first sign of an addictive personality and counsels him that most drinkers hate to drink alone in the company of sober people.
Joe eventually becomes sober for close to a year as well as a responsible father to his child and manages to hold down a steady job. He also attempts to make amends with his father-in-law but his Mr Arnesen lashes out at him blaming Joe for indirectly getting Kirsten involved in the alcoholic lifestyle. On calming down, Mr Arnesen reveals that Kirsten has been disappearing for long stretches of time and picking up strangers in bars.
One night, after Debbie is asleep, Kirsten comes to the couples’ apartment in an attempt at reconciliation. Joe resists the temptation to get back together with his wife, fearing that if he were to give in, he could go back to drinking.
Kirsten pleads with Joe to take her back and get their relationship back “the way it was”. Joe explains to her, “You remember how it really was? You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank. I got hold of something that kept me from going under, and I’m not going to let go of it. Not for you. Not for anyone. If you want to grab on, grab on. But there’s just room for you and me – no threesome”.
Kirsten refuses to admit that she is an alcoholic. However, she does acknowledge that without alcohol, she “can’t get over how dirty everything looks”. “You better give up on”, says Kirsten. Debbie asks Joe, “Daddy, will Mommy ever get well?” Joe replies, “I did, didn’t I?” Kirsten leaves and Joe fights the urge to follow her. He looks down the street where Kirsten is walking as a sign reading “Bar” reflects in the window.
The lyrics of Ain’t No Sunshine reflect Joe’s dilemma; he must either decide to stay with his wife and risk his alcoholism getting out of hand again or stay sober and risk losing her. Talking about Ain’t No Sunshine and the inspiration behind the song in 2009, Bill Withers explained, in reference to the characters of Joe and Kirsten: “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”.
The famous and highly effective section of the song in which Withers repeats “I know” 26 times occurred when the songwriter intended to write another verse for the song but was advised by other musicians to leave it that way.
For Ain’t No Sunshine, Withers took the subject matter of Days of Wine and Roses and created a song which has almost certainly become more famous than the film on which it was based. However, Ain’t No Sunshine was a success story nearly never happened. The song was originally tucked away on the B-side of Withers’ Harlem single but became popular when disc jockeys began to play Ain’t No Sunshine as the single instead. Ain’t No Sunshine thus became Withers’ first hit and has become one of his signature songs.