'Just The Two Of Us' Songwriter Found His Sound In Solitude

Feb 12, 2021
Originally published on February 12, 2021 8:34 am

William Salter helped write one of America's most iconic love songs.

He collaborated with Bill Withers and Ralph MacDonald on "Just the Two of Us," performed by Grover Washington Jr. on his album Winelight in 1980.

Salter, now 84, spoke with his 25-year-old granddaughter Jada Salter for a remote StoryCorps conversation about how he first found his sound.

Jada remembered her grandfather always humming a tune on her childhood visits to his home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

"Even when we're eating, you hum in between the bites," she said. "And that is a huge part of what I think of, when I think of Grandpa — your sound."

As a kid, William grew up in a quiet home environment. But he said radio music became somewhat of a coping mechanism for his solitude.

"My mother used to tell me, 'Children were to be seen and not heard.' We had little or no conversation," he said. "She was a day worker. She would go out and clean people's houses. And so I was always by myself — and lonely.

"But I had the radio, and songs that I could whistle or sing. So the radio and I embraced each other."

William Salter, right, his granddaughter Jada, front, and his son — and Jada's father — Jamal.
Courtesy of Jada Salter

Jada asked her grandpa how the bass became his instrument of choice.

As William recalled, it wasn't much of a choice: When he was in junior high school music class, all the other instruments were taken.

"All that was left were three string basses standing against the wall. It was either that or I didn't do anything. So I took what you get," he said. "But I had no complaints."

When he found music through the bass, he said, "I found myself."

"Prior to getting involved with music, I was just another kid on the block, without knowing who I was," he said. But with the large instrument in tow, William recalled, "I walked like I was somebody special."

"I would walk down the street with the bass on my back and people would just stand back," he said. "And with that bass, I've been able to get as far as I've gotten."

Jada recalled hearing her grandpa play "Just the Two of Us" for the first time when she was around 8 years old.

"When I heard the lyrics, I just imagined in my head — Grandpa and I," she said.

William said he spent a lot of time babysitting Jada when she was younger.

"It was very meaningful to have this very precious time to share with you in a way that I didn't have when I came up," he told her.

"I was blessed enough to have you for these years," Jada said. "And hopefully, I pray, I'll have you for a whole lot more. But I realize that song is an example of how you're still gonna be there — you're always gonna be there."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Abe Selby. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. We're heading into Valentine's Day weekend, so we're going to hear from one of the writers of this iconic American love song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST THE TWO OF US")

BILL WITHERS: (Singing) I see the crystal raindrops fall. And the beauty of it all is when the sun comes shining through.

PFEIFFER: "Just The Two Of Us" was co-written by William Salter. He's an 84-year-old grandfather now. His granddaughter Jada used StoryCorps Connect to ask him how he found his sound.

JADA SALTER: As a kid, when I would come to your house, I would always hear you humming. Even when we're eating, you hum in between the bites. And that is a huge part of what I think of when I think of Grandpa, your sound.

WILLIAM SALTER: You know, my mother used to tell me children were to be seen and not heard. We had little or no conversation. She was a day worker. She would go out and clean people's houses. And so I was always by myself and lonely. But I had the radio (laughter) and songs that I could whistle or sing. So the radio and I embraced each other.

J SALTER: Grandpa, could you explain how you found your instrument?

W SALTER: Yeah, very simple - junior high school. When I got to the music class, all the instruments were taken. All that was left were three-string basses standing against the wall. It was either that, or I didn't anything. So I took what you get. But I had no complaints because prior to getting involved with music, I was just another kid on the block without knowing who I was. But when music and I became one, I found myself. I would walk down the street with the bass on my back, and people would just stand back. I walked like I was somebody special. And with that bass, I've been able to get as far as I've gotten.

J SALTER: I remember when I was about 8, you were playing the song "Just The Two Of Us." And you said that was your song that you wrote. When I heard the lyrics, I just imagined in my head Grandpa and I.

W SALTER: (Laughter). I used to babysit you a lot. It was very meaningful to have this very precious time to share with you in a way that I didn't have when I came up.

J SALTER: You know, you're very precious to me. And, sometimes, I get scared that once it's your time, I'm not going to have you. I was blessed enough to have you for these years. And, hopefully, I pray, I'll have you for a whole lot more. But I realize that song is an example of how you're still going to be there. You're always going to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST THE TWO OF US")

WITHERS: (Singing) Just the two of us. We can make it if we try. Just the two of us.

PFEIFFER: You're listening to William Salter's song "Just The Two Of Us." He co-wrote it with Bill Withers and Ralph MacDonald. It was made famous by Grover Washington Jr. in 1981. Salter's StoryCorps conversation with his granddaughter Jada will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.