Joel Harper ’95 and Marcia J. Withers ’74 Honor Musician Bill Withers and Grandmas Everywhere

Joel Harper holds up the book Grandma’s Hands with one hand and points to the cover with the other hand. The front cover features an illustration of a little boy with his grandmother’s arms embracing him. Harper has short dark hair and wears sunglasses and a long-sleeved blue shirt.
Joel Harper ’95 with a copy of “Grandma’s Hands”

In 1971, Grammy-winning musician Bill Withers wrote the song “Grandma’s Hands” in honor of his maternal grandmother. The heartwarming musical tribute reached No. 18 on the Best-Selling Soul Singles chart and No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100. Fifty years later, two Pitzer alumni have helped adapt it into a children’s book.

Joel Harper ’95 and his company, Freedom Three Publishing, collaborated with the late Bill Withers’ wife, Marcia J. Withers ’74, and illustrator R. Gregory Christie to bring the song alive in a picture book of the same name.

“The timeless message of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ highlights the impact our elders have on shaping who we become,” said Harper. “Our collaboration aims to introduce Bill’s music and legacy to new generations.”

Harper has a strong family heritage in music. His grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, opened the Folk Music Center in Claremont in 1958, and his mother, Ellen Harper ’87, currently runs the store. Joel Harper has made music a running theme in his writing.

Harper connected with the Withers family when he sent a copy of his book “Frankie Finds the Blues” via a fan mail address in 2018. Harper cited Bill Withers as a musical and personal inspiration. Marcia J. Withers reached out to Harper to express appreciation, and as they talked more, they discovered a Pitzer connection. Withers knew Harper’s father, Leonard Harper, who was working in Pitzer’s financial aid office when she was a student.

“My father had a passion for actively recruiting students to Pitzer College who showed educational promise but did not have the economic means to attend Pitzer and ensuring they had the financial support needed,” said Harper. “And now here we are—a dream come true!”

Bill Withers wrote many award-winning hit songs, including “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine”

The book “Grandma’s Hands” illustrates Bill Withers’ soulful lyrics, immersing readers in the loving warmth and comfort that his grandmother shared with her grandson and community.

Harper considers his partnership with the Withers family and R. Gregory Christie “a magical, mystical experience” and has “zero doubt our loved ones are all in on this, conspiring to remind us they are right here with us!”

You can click here to see the animated video for “Grandma’s Hands,” which uses illustrations from the book and a new version of the song with Bill and Marcia’s daughter Kori. The book is available on Amazon, Brigham Distributing, and the Playing for Change website store.

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