Diana Spencer had just married Prince Charles, MTV had just debuted on cable and Ronald Reagan became president the year that “Just the Two of Us,” sung by Bill Withers and featuring a jazzy Grover Washington Jr. sax solo, hit No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, staying there for three weeks and eventually winning a Grammy Award, for Best R&B Song of 1981.
So why the heck is it back with a vengeance? TikTok, of course, where the song started trending earlier this year, becoming the sound of choice in an endless scroll of videos (more than 600,000 at last count) on the platform, the most viral of which includes a pair of brothers tossing a football in slo-mo…
…as well as a baby stretching, and a man in a boat hugging a pelican:
But also up there with the most viral videos to use the song is a gem by Jada Salter, the 24-year-old granddaughter of Harlem native William “Salty Bill” Salter — who just so happens to be the man who wrote the song. Her proud flex, viewed more than 10 million times on the songwriter’s new TikTok account (already followed by more than 400,000 users), notes “My grandfather wrote ‘Just the Two of Us,’” and features William and Jada in a split-screen, family photos and a 1960s image of him as a bassist playing with the legendary Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba of South Africa. “I wanna show him how much of an icon he is!” the video notes at the end.
Jada, a recent George Mason University graduate, tells Yahoo Life she’s been fiercely proud since childhood of her grandfather’s musical accomplishments — which include, but are not limited to, touring as a young bassist with Pete Seeger and then Harry Belafonte, and writing the Grammy-winning “Where Is the Love,” recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, as part of his Antisia Music, a joint effort with writing partner Ralph MacDonald and arranger William Eaton.
“I was 7 or 8 years old, I’d go upstairs to his office and I hear him playing the Will Smith version of his song,” Jada says, referring to the 1997 hip-hop version of the song (also covered in 1991, reggae-style, by Japanese artist Toshinobu Kubota, and sampled in 1999 by Eminem on “’97 Bonnie & Clyde”). “He explained, ‘Oh, this is the song I did, and he recreated it,’ and it was so cool, because there was a storybook to it. So I went back to camp the next weekday and I was showing everybody on my Walkman, and I was like ‘This is my grandpa’s song!’ I just thought he was the coolest person ever.”
“I started writing in the mid-’60s,” says Bill, who wrote “Just the Two of Us” in 1980 after MacDonald returned from a trip to Trinidad and Tobago and took note of a tourism campaign poster of the same name. It spoke to MacDonald, who asked Bill to write a song about it, which he did, though a few years would pass before they were sitting around in the studio with Washington, Jr., playing samples of various songs Bill had written.
“Bill Withers came into their studio and loved ‘Just the Two of Us’,” Jada recounts for Yahoo Life. “He changed some of the words and recorded it, and it became [my grandfather’s] second hit song.”
William chalks the fact that the song is still trending up to the timeliness of its sentiment. “It’s a phrase that’s been around since time immemorial, so it’s nothing new, really, but it’s familiar,” he says. “‘Just the two of us’ is a thing anybody can take and make it their own, basically.”
When Jada saw the song trending on TikTok, she explains, “Not much people know who wrote these songs, like who’s behind them. Since he’s in my family, he’s my grandfather, I have the perfect way to show people, ‘This is who wrote the song.’” So she made the video and posted it, helping her grandfather set up his own account to showcase it. “I didn’t expect it to go as big as it did. It just flew off,” she adds. “I’m just really happy for that, because it’s helping him get the recognition that he deserves — and also [get] other people that are behind the scenes more recognition.” (She says her grandfather has not seen any royalties from his newfound fame, though they are “looking into how that can happen and how he can become verified on the app,” Jada says.)
Jada majored in film, she says, and one of her senior projects was to create a video. “I decided to create a documentary of my grandfather, so that’s why I decided to start the GoFundMe page,” she says of her fundraiser, which has so far inspired more than $6,400 in donations towards her effort. “I’m super-proud, and I’m just honored to be blessed to be his granddaughter.”
As for William, who is still writing music and sometimes plays with the Ebony Hillbillies, an African-American string band, he’s still getting used to being back in the spotlight. “I’m still in awe of the fact that this is happening because, you know, I was quietly living my life, doing what I was doing… and all of a sudden, the doors flew open and now I’m totally, basically, exposed to expressing myself. And I did that already!” he says, laughing. “But now it’s catching up with me. Fantastic. I love it.”
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