Listen to this article
It is the most dignified of songs: Bill Withers’ captivating little blues, more a series of sketches than a story, draws on the history of African-Americans, their relationship with Christianity, and hints at the violence of slavery.
Oh, and it pays tribute to Withers’ grandmother, Lula Galloway: “Grandma’s hands clapped in church on Sunday morning/Grandma’s hands played the tambourine so well.”
Withers wrote “Grandma’s Hands” before he had a record deal; he launched his recording career at the age of 32, signing with the Sussex label in 1970 after a career in the US Navy. “Grandma’s Hands” featured on his debut album Just As I Am, which found him singing in stellar company: Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills & Nash) on guitar, Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, Traveling Wilburys) on drums, and three quarters of The MGs, including Booker T Jones himself, who produced the LP.
The cautious and practical Withers was not starry-eyed about the sessions: he kept his day job, believing the music business to be “fickle”. He was, however, an immediate success. The album went Top 40 in the US; his first 45, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, reached number 3, and “Grandma’s Hands” made it to number 42.
In the pimped-up, Super Fly world of early 1970s US black music, “Grandma’s Hands” was an unlikely downbeat hit, reflecting Withers’ unfussy personality. He suited the era’s singer-songwriter boom better than the soul music scene, and the down-home directness of his message was exemplified in “Grandma’s Hands”.
It depicted his grandmother as an all-round protector, picking him up when he fell, warning him he might tread on a snake, intervening when he was facing a flogging, as well as finding time to comfort unmarried mothers. Withers, who had been a sickly child with asthma and a stutter, explained: “Grandmothers tend to gravitate towards the weak kid.”
Artists raided his records for material like wasps at a picnic, and “Grandma’s Hands” was no exception. Merry Clayton, famous for wailing on The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, covered it first in her regular rock-soul style. In 1973, The Staple Singers took it back down South to a territory Grandma Lula would have recognised. The following year, Barbra Streisand got away with it on an arrangement that’s grittier than her usual fare. Jazz-funk vocalist Al Jarreau included it in an album of Bill Withers adaptations in 1979, and Gil Scott Heron, curiously keen on songs that mention troubled mothers, gave it a funky update in 1981.
There were many more versions. Then Withers’ elegantly simple two-minute song found itself being not covered but sampled on 1996’s “No Diggity” by Blackstreet (featuring the rapper and future billionaire entrepreneur Dr Dre). It was only the slightest of samples, but it made the song: the opening guitar chord and Withers’ gospelly “hmm-hmm” were modified and used as a motif throughout. The track became a worldwide hit and a US number 1.
When the impresario Simon Cowell entered the story, “Grandma’s Hands” began to lose some of its dignity. As the England football team prepared to compete in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Cowell released an “unofficial anthem” for the team, “Shout” by Shout for England, an ensemble featuring rapper Dizzee Rascal and actor James Corden. The song was a mash-up of “No Diggity” (with the “Grandma’s Hands” sample) and “Shout” by Tears for Fears, and was as lamentable as the England team’s performance. It was also credited to a dizzying number of songwriters: 12 — more than a football team’s worth.
Withers’ opinion of it is not known. What he thinks about “Grandma’s Hands”, however, is no secret. He has called it his favourite of the songs he’s written: quite an honour, considering his reputation as a tunesmith. He said it was about “when I learnt how to really love somebody . . . from a nice old lady”. That’s as good a reason as any to write a song.
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song