In the last few weeks we’ve played a couple songs where a great solo got chopped up to appease the Gods of Radio. Can’t have some damn-fool sax or trumpet player going on and on when you’ve got a hard break coming up and local car dealer ads to run. So a smart record label always produces a “radio edit” of a song that has the potential to be a hit, but that runs too long for radio play.
Unless the artist in question is Grover Washington, Jr.
Washington’s 1980 album Winelight is a classic of the smooth-jazz genre, even if you don’t like that kind of thing. For the song “Just The Two Of Us,” Washington brought soul legend Bill Withers on board to provide the vocal. Between Washington’s sax and Withers’ voice, there’s more soul goodness on this single than most acts manage to fit into an entire album.
But talk about radio unfriendly. The song goes on for seven and a half minutes, most of which is Washington playing his sax. But the story goes that Washington told his record label to get lost on a radio edit — they could either release the whole thing unmolested, or not at all. That takes a pair of brass ones for a guy who’s supposed to be in the business of, you know, selling records. (There is a four-minute edit which has been used on various compilation albums and on the air since, but you sure didn’t hear it in 1980.)
So that’s how I first heard “Just The Two Of Us” during sixth grade carpool runs — in all its uncut glory. And this jazz/soul hybrid, running twice as long as almost anything else on the air, made it all the way to #2 on the pop charts.
Not the little jazz charts hardly anyone ever buys. Not the pseudo-ghetto of the pre-Thriller soul charts. But it went to #2 on Billboard’s totally mainstream Hot 100. I won’t go so far as to call that unprecedented, but it just might be.
So how’d it happen? How did a Program Director’s nightmare become a monster radio hit? The answer is simple: It’s just a really pretty song, performed by two incredible talents at the peak of their powers.
In a musical age of pretty faces with little more than Auto-Tune behind them, it’s easy to forget what a powerful thing it is, to make just a really pretty song.