Nearly 10 minutes into Bill Withers’ set at the BBC, the soul singer attempted to introduce a personal song. “Most of us in our lives … get our tongues tied up and can’t say what we intended to,” he said, as laughter filled the room. “So I’ll take another crack at it.”
He tried again: “Most of us, at some point in our lives, have somebody that means more to us than anybody else has ever meant before or will ever mean again,” he said. “In my case, I really learned to love somebody — not a pretty lady, not that point in her life — who used some very gnarled hands to make life kind of nice for me at that time, when I really needed somebody. And probably since I consider myself somebody who writes primarily, my favorite thing that I’ve written has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.”
Withers then launched into “Grandma’s Hands,” seen at the nine-minute mark in the clip above. An ode to his nurturing grandmother, Withers appreciates her by observing actions through her hands, aged with wrinkles and experience. She plays a tambourine, hands him candy, and picks him up when he falls. “But I don’t have Grandma anymore,” he laments along a laid-back groove. “If I get to heaven I’ll look for/Grandma’s hands.”
“Grandma’s Hands” was released off of Withers’ 1971 debut, Just As I Am, which was produced by Booker T. Jones and featured legendary session drummer Jim Keltner and Stephen Stills on guitar. As a former member of the Navy, Withers was an inexperienced musician, newly signed to Sussex Records.
While he was recording the LP, Graham Nash walked into the studio and calmed Withers’ nerves. “He sat down in front of me and said, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ ” Withers told Rolling Stone. “I’ll never forget it.”
Withers played a handful of other songs at the BBC that day, including his breakout hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me,” and “Lean on Me.” But it’s the emotional “Grandma’s Hands” that showcases his storytelling gifts. With the news of his death on Friday, it’s worth noting that the soul singer occasionally took a break from writing love songs — taking time to appreciate one of the first women in his life.