In Bill Withers’ hands, “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a sober lament. Bill knows his “young thing” is gone, and he knows damn well she ain’t coming back. The song’s acoustic guitar intro calls to mind a guy in his backyard, making up stream of consciousness lyrics, a shot (or bottle) of whiskey at his side. When Bill goes off into his “iknowiknowiknowiknow” bridge, you can almost picture him banging his head against a wall with each repetition.The drums and strings that sweeten the song almost seem obtrusive in this context. Almost.
In the hands (voice?) of 13 year old Michael Jackson, and Motown’s production staff that context is much different. Bill Withers (who was in his thirties when “Ain’t No Sunshine” became a hit) has experienced heartbreak. He knows the game, although knowing the game doesn’t lessen the pain of his love leaving. MJ is feeling heartbreak presumably for the first time (although he imbues this song with way more emotion than any adolescent should be able to muster). Bill sounds hardened, Mike sounds wounded. The future King of Pop’s vocal performance (complete with Diana-esque “ooh”s and a spoken intro) creates a drama that seems puppy-love appropriate, and in this case, the strings only intensify that drama.
Both approaches work perfectly, which is the mark of an excellently written tune.