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April 21, 2020

deadline pilot season 2020 limbo networks mull straight to series orders pilot panic

Coronavirus Television COVID 19 COVID-19 pilot season featured image

It’s April, the month when Deadline usually launches its Pilot Panic feature, where we track buzz on the broadcast pilots as they go through production and testing.

This year, there is no pilot production or testing, there actually isn’t much of anything typically associated with pilot season besides the panic, which has been setting in — and growing — as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Over the past month and a half, pilot season has been suspended, and upfront presentations have been canceled. Yet, we could somehow potentially end up in a quasi-normal situation, with the broadcast networks making new series orders in May.

There may not be decisions made on every single pilot, with only the strongest contenders getting straight-to-series pickups. But in a situation like the present one, anything resembling normalcy is an achievement.

Likely to be among any series orders is the only completed broadcast pilot this year, the CBS/WBTV multi-camera comedy B Positive, from Chuck Lorre and Marco Pennette, which I hear already has been making hires for potential series production. Also reportedly looking good is the other broadcast pilot to have filmed any footage this year, Fox’s This Country, after a short presentation cut from the very limited amount of film has been well received.

As Deadline reported a month ago, following the unprecedented Hollywood shutdown over the COVID-19 outbreak, all broadcast networks ordered one backup script each for all of their pilots.

There were a few exceptions. A couple of high-profile drama pilots, including CBS’ The Lincoln Lawyer and ABC’s Rebel. had writers rooms set up pre-COVID to produce multiple scripts for series consideration. Those shows continue to track well.And I hear there are 1-2 pilots, including one at CBS, whose creative teams declined the backup script order, instead relying on the pilot script to speaks for itself. But for the most part, pilot creators went back to work crafting a new script.

Since then, I hear ABC ordered a second backup script on all of its pilots, while Fox ordered an extra script on some of its. CBS and NBC are said to be sticking with their original orders of one additional script per pilot.

The pilot writers and producers also are working on additional materials to strengthen their case for pickup, including bibles and detailed story and character arcs to be presented to the networks along with the scripts. There also have been out-of-the-box ideas at at least two networks, like filming remotely a short scene or other related video to accompany the scripts in hopes they might boost the project’s chances.

For now, it looks like networks plan to pull the trigger on straight-to-series orders based on scripts and additional materials. It is possible that for some projects the networks could opt to go through a writers room stage or still film a pilot off-cycle. (It appears likely that at least some pilots will not be produced.) As one executive noted, “all options are on the table.”

Overall, as Deadline reported in March, the coronavirus-impacted 2020 pilot season is bringing broadcast networks closer to the streaming development model built on multiple scripts triggering a straight-to-series order — something the networks had been flirting with, but the pull of the traditional pilot cycle had been too hard to break away from. As we suggested, the jolt to the traditional broadcast development season this year caused by the pandemic may be felt years after it is over.

Earlier this month, a New York Times story about Bog Iger reported that the Disney Executive Chairman had asked associates to explore permanent changes across businesses that might include no longer producing costly pilots for shows that might not air.

That may be what the future of broadcast development looks like. For now, the networks have 55 pilots they have ordered and, for the most part cast, whose fate they need to decide. But before the networks make pickup calls, the studios behind the pilots need to pay the actors who had already been cast. Five and a half weeks into the production shutdown, that had not been done yet but I hear the first payments may get on their way to performers later this week.

April 21, 2020

Sean Penn Has Made Hollywood Proud In Time Of Crisis; How The Town Can Help His COVID-19 Testing Cause

sean penn core coronavirus
Courtesy of CORE

Ed Note: When natural disasters strike, most of us quickly write checks and say, ‘I wish I could do more.’ At that moment, there is a good chance Sean Penn is on a plane headed toward the wreckage. We saw post-Hurricane Katrina pictures of Penn in a small motorboat, braving the flood waters to pull people off roofs or whatever else they clung to after the levees gave way. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Penn spent years there, co-creating a foundation that helped tens of thousands who were left with nothing but devastation. He and his CORE partner Ann Lee responded to the coronavirus pandemic by leaning in hard to help administer thousands of COVID-19 tests, focusing especially on economically disadvantaged Angelenos who might not otherwise have a way to find out if they’d been infected. Penn and Lee have created a template which could have a wide spread, in the best possible way. The work they are doing is important and Deadline is hoping our readers might help their efforts. They’ve got a website and it would be swell to see a collective outpouring as this template they’ve established looks to expand to other cities. When we spoke briefly via Zoom today, Penn looked dog tired, though he surely would never admit it. MF

Sean Penn Working On Establishing COVID-19 Testing Sites In SoCal, Envisions National Rollout

DEADLINE: Of all the ways you could have thought of to help in this pandemic, why did you lean into testing?

PENN: In the idea that doctors have of first do no harm, it seemed very sensible for us to relieve highly skilled first responders, in our case the Los Angeles Fire Department, from having to man these sites. We were able to take their training at the directing of Mayor Garcetti, and be able to pass the training on to our staff and volunteers. Which meant that each site we picked up, 20-25 firefighters were able to get back to their emergency response duties in the city of Los Angeles.

DEADLINE: How big is your group of volunteers and how many tests are they administering on a daily and weekly basis?

PENN: Where we are now, and some of this has to do with the ramp up time in getting on our feet, but in two weeks, we are moving around 30,000 tests and we’re on pace to do 100,000 tests in the city of Los Angeles per month. That’s an ongoing program. We are starting to diversify into other areas of the state. I’m in Napa, California this morning and will be branching off into some of the lesser served urban communities from here. We hope to take that same model to a national level. CORE itself as a direct implementer isn’t going to be the answer to the universe and the capacity won’t be there, but the real idea is to set up a very replicable model, one that is adaptable. Because each model is different, from rural to suburban to urban, and whatever cultural, socioeconomic, and local governments’ ability to integrate with NGOs or community foundations. We want to set up a model that is adaptable to all of the above. I think our key goal is to do that and integrate with local government.

DEADLINE: The people you’ve given these tests they otherwise might not be able to afford or even know how to find, what is the biggest benefit they are getting from what you’re doing here?

PENN: Ann?

LEE: The folk that are coming through have the benefit of getting this for free, and very quickly. The fact we are doing it at scale is a huge factor. It is great to know whether or not you have it, though as we’ve said over and over again, that only gives you a certain window until you might get infected. So the higher volume of people who can be tested on a regular basis is so critical for us, to have some understanding of exactly what is happening, and how big the spread is. The folk that are uninsured, potentially undocumented, these are the areas we are focusing on. They’re an under-served population. And because of systemic issues, they are going to be a lot more vulnerable to the virus, so these testing sites hit those two nails on the head. To understand what the situation is on the ground to basically plan for the future,  but allow the most vulnerable to be safer and aware of their situation.

PENN: If I could highlight something from what Ann said: the people who come in to be tested at our sites, also benefit as we all do, in contributing to our partners at the National Surveillance Bank so that we can play our role in helping the scientific community, who’ll be the ones who give us a final freedom from this damned thing.

DEADLINE: Whether I stood on a line or pulled up in my car and I took the test, how long before I know if I have the virus or not?

PENN: That’s variable and it has been going up and down as labs increase their capacities. We at one point had started at a two day, 48-hour result period, and we’re still identifying where the hold ups are that make it as long as 10 days. It should be very transparent that your test result has as much integrity as your will to be isolated in the period between test and result. So it’s anywhere between two to ten days, depending on where you are located.

DEADLINE: We have been writing pieces on what it will take to get Hollywood production back on track. Clearly, no one can feel safe until until we have a method where someone can take a test, wait and be told whether or not they are allowed to come to work. How far are we from testing that can produce results in 45 minutes or so?

PENN: Let’s be clear that there is a variety of levels of integrity in test kits. But you boil them down to two principal kinds of tests. One is what CORE is involved in, now. Positive or negative. Then there is the serology test, what they’re calling the antibody test. The antibody tests, to date have been dominated by tests that will detect a variety of coronaviruses and are not targeted to the COVID-19. Now, from what we understand, there are very credible and specific kits that can detect COVID-19. But as you probably have been hearing, the answers are going to follow science. And science has not gotten definitive answers on even whether there is immunity associated with this particular virus. Following the tracking of other similar viruses, a likelihood is that there is some level of immunity. But we don’t know yet how long it lasts or if it is a lifelong ticket. The best answer a layman can give you — and that’s who you are talking to now, but one who has the benefit of access to some of the foremost experts consulting with us — is there is not an answer to that question. And that goes into the broader question of opening the economy and dealing with the current emergency. Of course, there are good arguments for both. But what we have, if you take a look at what happened to Canada yesterday…this horrible shooting of 16 people? Well, there, we know where to put our rage. That simplifies it. But with this virus, we currently have the equivalent of an active shooter that has killed over 40,000 Americans and wounded hundreds of thousands. This is an active shooter. I’m going to leave the rest to others and fortunately, we started our work in California with the extraordinary governance of Gov. [Gavin] Newsom and mayors like Mayor [London] Breed and Mayor [Eric] Garcetti in Los Angeles. I’m going to defer to them to speak on the political picture. But we do have to recognize, whatever position we take on it, that this is the equivalent of an active shooter who is hitting a lot of targets but is specifically targeting communities of color and the elderly.

DEADLINE: What’s the biggest challenge in training volunteers to safely administer these tests?

LEE: Getting them off the line to take a break. Our volunteers and staff have been phenomenal. They are so committed. The public reaction from people who thank them for doing this work, is very overwhelming. Our crew feels like they are actually making a difference in their communities, which they are. So getting them to take a break has been difficult. In terms of safety and security, they’re not in direct contact with anybody…they’re demonstrating, through a windshield and the safety of PPE, so the chance of spread is very limited.

DEADLINE: Final question; Sean you’ve done Hollywood proud here. If I asked you, what is the biggest thing that people in Hollywood who will read this today can do to help this cause, what would you say?

PENN: That’s actually pretty simple for me to say. Our organization truly would not exist without the support of the entertainment community that has been so involved with us since the very beginning. We all know the deep passion and generosity that so many have, and as a result one of the things we see happen is the focus gets very spread out. When our organization began, we grew to a level of excellence I’m very proud of, because of the talent of people like Ann and all of the Haitian volunteers we had in the first place. What we did, philosophically, is look for a mother ship, and we’re doing that as an organization now in Los Angeles with the mayor’s office, and the LA Fire Department. So if your passion is testing, I would guide you to CORE. If your passion is food, I would guide you to World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés’ organization. There are highly functioning organizations and I think when it gets too fragmented and everybody’s doing their own thing — and I understand how it happens — then we fall into creating our own bureaucracy. Things slow down and overlap occurs.

So I’m definitely volunteering CORE, the mother ship of testing, for their support, and I’m encouraging them to take that thing they’re most passionate about…it might be feeding the elderly or the front line people…but just consider the general notion to focus our efforts as one.

DEADLINE: For CORE, would it be best for people in Hollywood to donate, or to volunteer in LA, or look into starting a chapter in another city based on the template you’ve established?

PENN: I’m going to say, all of the above. And I will guide them to our website and let their better angels decide what they’ll be most committed to, and sustainably so, until we get done with this particular beast.

April 7, 2020

Nipsey Hussle Doc Directed By Ava DuVernay Set At Netflix

After what was reportedly an intense bidding war, Netflix has landed the rights to an Ava DuVernay-directed documentary on the late rapper, Nipsey Hussle.

The film is a co-production between DuVernay’s ARRAY and Hussle’s Marathon Films. Netflix took the rights in the deal, which is supposedly worth eight figures and in the teens. Deadline’s report also states that Hussle’s estate reached out to DuVernay “based on their admiration for her work on the likes of 13th and When They See Us.”

In an Instagram post, Lauren London confirmed that the deal is in the works but has not been finalized.

Competitors for the doc included Apple and Amazon. Another report from THR says that Apple was the frontrunner, but the documentary wasn’t going to sell for the $26 million like their Billie Ellish doc or the $25 million for their Rihanna doc.

DuVernay’s other upcoming projects include OWN’s Cherish The Day, premiering this week, and she’s shooting the HBO Max DC Comics pilot, DMZ, starring Rosario Dawson and Benjamin Bratt.  She is also in the early stages of pre-production for Warner Bros.’ DC Comics film, New Gods. 

April 7, 2020

Tyler James Williams: Non-Black Writers, Stop Writing Black ‘Slang’ Dialogue

Are you tired of non-Black writers writing bad film or television dialogue for Black characters? So is Tyler James Williams.

The actor tweeted about his frustration with writers, garnering over 7,000 retweets and over 37,000 likes.

In his tweet, Williams asked non-Black writers to “please stop writing Black ‘slang’ dialogue for your Black characters. It always sounds like it was written by a middle aged white dad. Always. Like never doesn’t sound like that. Sincerely, Black actors trying to make your shit sound natural.”

April 7, 2020

‘Queen Sugar’ And ‘Watchmen’ Announced As Television Academy Honors Recipients

The recipients of the 13th annual Television Academy Honors were announced Wednesday the honors include Watchmen and Queen Sugar.

Starring Regina King, HBO’s Watchmen is set 34 years after the events of the comic book of the same name. The HBO adaptation also deals with racism and racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Created by Ava DuVernay, Queen Sugar chronicles the Bordelons, a group of siblings living in rural Louisiana.

“The Academy Honors Committee is thrilled once again to recognize television that is not only excellent but strives to inform, move and impact its audience by highlighting important issues facing our society,” said Academy governor Howard Meltzer.

Other notable recipients include Showtime’s Laquan McDonald documentary, 16 Shots, and Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.

“Now more than ever, television remains one of the most powerful mediums to reach and touch people. We applaud those brave visionaries who choose to tell difficult and empowering stories,” said co-chair Jill Sanford.

April 7, 2020

‘Candyman’ Delayed Until The Fall Due To Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has led to Universal and MGM moving Candyman to Sept. 25 from its original June 12 release date.

Candyman‘s move to Sept. 25 puts the Will Packer-produced musical Praise This off the 2020 calendar, at least for now. It is currently undated.

The Candyman move is one of many studios have been making while trying to make sense of the pandemic.

The MGM film stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Nathan Stewart-Jarret and Vanessa Williams. Scheduled for release on June 12, 2020, the film is set in “the now-gentrified section of Chicago where the Cabrini-Green housing projects once stood.” Abdul-Matteen portrays Anthony McCoy, a man who becomes obsessed with the bloody legend and Parris will play his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright, who is an art dealer.

The official description reads: For as long as residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood were terrorized by a word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer with a hook for a hand, easily summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror. In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Mateen) and his girlfriend, gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Parris), move into a luxury loft condo in Cabrini, now gentrified beyond recognition and inhabited by upwardly mobile millennials. With Anthony’s painting career on the brink of stalling, a chance encounter with a Cabrini Green old-timer (Domingo) exposes Anthony to the tragically horrific nature of the true story behind Candyman. Anxious to maintain his status in the Chicago art world, Anthony begins to explore these macabre details in his studio as fresh grist for paintings, unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with destiny.

April 7, 2020

AMPAS Makes $6M Donation To Help Motion Picture Employees Impacted By COVID-19

Amanda Schwab/Starpix/Shutterstock

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has pledged $6M to help those motion picture industry employees and their families who have been effected by the financial strain of the coronavirus.

Of that amount, $4M will be dispensed to The Actors Fund, which helps below the line workers and performers, and the Motion Picture & Television Fund. AMPAS will also give $2 million to the  Academy Foundation to support its grants program.

“The Academy has a long history of supporting our colleagues, particularly during the most dire circumstances,” said Academy President David Rubin. “As we face a pandemic, it’s incumbent upon us to help those in the motion picture community who are suffering. The shutting down of productions, businesses and theaters has had devastating consequences. By contributing financially to The Actors Fund, MPTF, and the Academy Foundation’s wonderful grants program, we can help provide our extended family with desperately needed assistance.”

Academy CEO Dawn Hudson commented, “The Academy’s primary focus right now is helping our community make it through this unprecedented crisis. With our donation, The Actors Fund and MPTF can bring emergency services — including financial assistance, housing, family care and counseling — to more people. Both are long-standing, safety net organizations with the expertise to mobilize and respond quickly. Additionally, the Academy Foundation’s Grants Program will be able to continue its ongoing efforts to provide opportunity and funding for deserving, diverse storytellers in an even more effective way, and make sure these individuals feel supported during this time.”

April 7, 2020

Actors’ Equity Offers Dues Relief To Members In Need Amid Coronavirus Shutdown Of Legit Theaters Nationwide

Actors’ Equity Association

Actors’ Equity, whose membership has been jobless since the COVID-19 shutdown of live theaters across the country, is offering dues relief to those members who need it. The union’s $87 spring basic dues payment, customarily billed in May, has been extended to July 31, and late fees for basic dues and initiation fees that are accrued after April 1 will be waived through Nov. 30.

The move was unanimously approved by Equity’s National Council.

“I hope that Council’s changes will help relieve some of the burden on our members while the entire industry is essentially closed for business,” said Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle. “That said, it is incredibly important that anyone who can pay their basic dues does so as soon as possible – whether wholly or partially – to keep the union strong and help preserve our core functions. Paying what you can will enable us to advocate for actors and stage managers right now in Congress. It will also reinforce our ability to continue negotiations with employers regarding current settlements, as well as when the industry restarts production.”

Actors’ Equity Lauds Senate For $2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Bill

Normally, Equity operates through two types of dues: the first is working dues, 2.5% of gross earnings under Equity contract, which have almost completely dried up in the current crisis. The second is annual dues, totaling $174 annually, paid out as $87 in May and November. The National Council is also “encouraging members who are able to do so to pay their dues on time to preserve the core functions of the union.”

Equity joins a growing list of industry unions and guilds that are providing some form of dues relief to their members during the coronavirus crisis, including SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, the Producers Guild, the International Cinematographers Guild, LA’s Musicians Local 47, IATSE Grips Local 80, IATSE Costumers Local 705, IATSE Make-Up & Hair Stylists Guild Local 706, and Hollywood’s Teamsters Local 399.

Actors’ Equity Offers New Streaming Contracts To Keep Regional Theaters Operating During Coronavirus Outbreak

April 7, 2020

Coronavirus: TV Shows That Have Halted Or Delayed Production Amid Outbreak

 

Shutterstock

Check back for updates … The coronavirus has hit the television industry hard, and the fallout has only begun. Dozens of series have halted production or had their starts delayed as the outbreak continues to spread. Have a look at our list of broadcast, cable, streaming and international series below.

We will update this post when we hear that another show is shut down:

Coronavirus: Movies That Have Halted Or Delayed Production Amid Outbreak

BROADCAST

All Rise (CBS)
The Amazing Race (CBS)
American Housewife (ABC)
America’s Got Talent (NBC)
American Ninja Warrior (NBC)
The Bachelor (ABC)
The Bachelorette (ABC)
Batwoman (The CW)
The Blacklist (NBC)
Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS)
The Bold and the Beautiful (CBS)
The Brides (ABC)
Bull (CBS)
Card Sharks (ABC)
Charmed (the CW)
Chicago Fire (NBC)
Chicago P.D. (NBC)
Chicago Med (NBC)
Claws (TNT)
Dynasty (The CW)
Empire (Fox)
FBI (CBS)
FBI: Most Wanted (CBS)
The Flash (The CW)
General Hospital (ABC)
God Friended Me (CBS)
The Goldbergs (ABC)
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)
Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC)
Last Man Standing (Fox)
Law & Order: SVU (NBC)
The Late Late Show with James Corden (CBS)
Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS)
Legacies (The CW)
Nancy Drew (the CW)
NCIS (CBS)
NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)
NCIS: New Orleans (CBS)
The Neighborhood (CBS)
New Amsterdam (NBC)
neXt (Fox)
The Price Is Right (CBS)
The Resident (Fox)
Riverdale (The CW)
Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Schooled (ABC)
SEAL Team (CBS)
S
Supergirl (The CW)
Supernatural (The CW)
Superstore (NBC)
Survivor (CBS)
S.W.A.T. (CBS)
The Talk (CBS)
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC)
The Young and the Restless (CBS)
Young Sheldon (CBS)

Coronavirus: List Of Canceled Or Postponed Hollywood & Media Events

CABLE

Atlanta (FX)
Barry (HBO)
The Bold Type (Freeform)
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
Euphoria (HBO)
Fargo (FX)
Fear the Walking Dead (AMC)
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
Genius: Aretha (National Geographic Channel)
Godmothered (Disney Channel)
Home & Family (Hallmark Channel)
Impeachment: American Crime Story (FX)
Kennedy (Fox Business)
Kevin Can F**k Himself (AMC)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO; last show 3/15)
Lights Out with David Spade (Comedy Central)
My 600-lb. Life (TLC)
The Oval (BET)
Pennyworth (Epix)
Pose (FX)
Queen of the South (USA)
Queen Sugar (OWN)
Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO; last show 3/13)
The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)
Snowfall (FX)
Succession (HBO)
Snowpiercer (TNT)
Trish Regan Primetime (Fox Business)
The Walking Dead (TNT, delayed)
Watch What Happens Live (Bravo)
Y (FX)
Young Dylan (Nickelodeon)

 

STREAMING

Angelyne (Peacock)
Animal Kingdom (TNT)
Big Shot (Disney+)
Carnival Row (Amazon Prime)
Doom Patrol (HBO Max)
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+)
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Foundation (Apple TV+)
GLOW (Netflix)
Gossip Girl (HBO Max)
Grace and Frankie (Netflix)
The Handmaid’s tale (Hulu)
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Lisey’s Story (Apple TV+)
Little America (Apple TV+)
Loki (Disney+)
Lucifer (Netflix)
Mankind (Apple TV+)
The Morning Show (Apple TV+)
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+)
The Orville (Hulu)
Pen15 (Hulu)
Prank Encounters (Netflix)
Russian Doll (Netflix)
Rutherford Falls (Peacock)
See (Apple TV+)
Servant (Apple TV+)
Sex/Life (Netflix)
Simply Halston (Netflix)
Sistas (BET)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Tokyo Vice (HBO Max)
Untitled Julia Child Project (HBO Max)
Varsity Blues (Quibi)
WandaVision (Disney+)
The Wheel of Time (Amazon)
The Witcher (Netflix)

SYNDICATION

The Dr. Oz Show
Dr. Phil
The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Family Feud
The Kelly Clarkson Show
The Mel Robbins Show
Tamron Hall
The Wendy Williams Show

INTERNATIONAL

Around the World in 80 Days (BBC’s CBBC, UK; Seven, Australia; TVNZ, New Zealand)
Baptiste (BBC One, UK)
Britannia (Sky, UK)
Casualty (BBC News, UK)
Celebrity Race Across The World (BBC Two, UK)
Doctors (BBC News, UK)
EastEnders (BBC, UK)
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4, Netflix, UK)
Holby City (BBC News, UK)
Line of Duty (BBC, UK)
Love Island France (Amazon, France)
Neighbours (Network 10, Australia)
Peaky Blinders (BBC, UK)

SHOWS THAT HAVE RESUMED PRODUCTION

Tooning Out the News (CBS All Access)

 

April 7, 2020

An Appreciation of Bill Withers, Soul Music’s Workingman

Alan Messer/Shutterstock

In a 1962 radio interview, the famed R&B disc jockey Magnificent Montague asked Sam Cooke to define soul music in eight bars. Cooke’s response — a wordless hum that curved gently around an imagined melody with inexplicable poignancy — was so spot-on that it should have been transcribed as sheet music in dictionaries. It was a decade later when Bill Withers, who died today at the age of 81, did him one better, offering an unmistakable summary of soul music in a single bar, instead of eight. Cue up “Grandma’s Hands,” right before the first verse starts, and you’ll know it when you hear it: “mmm-hmmm…”

“Grandma’s Hands” was the song that convinced Clarence Avant, owner of then nascent Sussex Records, to sign Withers to his first contract in the early 1970s. A West Virginia native who wound up working at a Los Angeles airplane parts factory after a stint in the Navy, Withers had unsuccessfully shopped his self-made demo to labels all over town, but Avant saw something special in that song. When I asked him what that “something” was during an interview a few years ago, Avant squinted at me as though I’d just posed the most absurd question imaginable, and replied: “Hell, everybody’s got a grandma.”

But that was only part of it. The song is a perfect encapsulation of Withers’ lyrical gifts — a Proustian lullaby that achieves universality through an accumulation of hyper-specific autobiographical details — but it’s that wordless throat-clearing at the beginning that serves as the first bite of the madeleine. The same is true for Withers’ other early hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in which his placeholder lyrics for a never-written second verse — the phrase “I know” repeated 26 times — convey depths of longing and regret that no words could have properly plumbed. Like all of the greatest soul singers, Withers knew that soul defies language.

Of course, Withers was more than just a soul singer, at least in the early-’60s sense of the term. His style could reach further back, to the primal power of the early bluesmen, and further forward, to the smoother sounds of the Laurel Canyon folkies like Stephen Stills, who played guitar on Withers’ debut. (And perhaps even further forward than that: Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” one of the most ubiquitous R&B hits of the 1990s, was built on a sample of that one bar from “Grandma’s Hands.”) Ultimately, although you can track clear traces of Withers’ influence on everyone from D’Angelo to John Legend and Fiona Apple, his style was entirely his own.

In his late twenties before he ever picked up a guitar, and well into his thirties before he ever had an album released, Withers was a classic late bloomer, yet he had the good fortune to break big just as black popular music was entering a period of relative liberation — its artists increasingly less interested in watering down their material to appeal to white audiences. Motown stars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were just beginning to break away from the rigid constraints of that label-machine and become full-fledged musical auteurs. Funkadelic and Sly Stone were combining R&B with rock and psychedelia in ways that permanently expanded the scope of black music. Previously behind-the-scenes craftsmen like Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes had become household names as both solo stars and film music composers.

Even within that company, however, Withers was an anomaly: a pop star thoroughly in the black music tradition, but one whose songs demanded he be allowed the same sort of room for introspection, intimacy and first-person earnestness that tended to only be granted to white singer-songwriters. Resolutely far from flashy and uninterested in following trends, Withers’ music was ever warm and comforting, but rarely as straightforward as it seemed. “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)” — perhaps the most seamless coupling of folk and funk ever put to record — is a somewhat lurid wronged-man track at heart, but Withers’ cheeky asides (“When I add the sum of you and me / I get confused and keep coming up with three”) and that “dadgummit!” dropped into the chorus give it an almost wholesome charm. “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is unambiguous in its anti-Vietnam stance, and yet as a story-song it elides its most devastating detail with a deftness worthy of Flannery O’Connor. But he also knew when to leave well enough alone, and his most enduring composition, “Lean on Me,” is all the more powerful for its unabashed, unhedged tenderness.

Even as the grist in his music was smoothed out in his post-Sussex years, Withers was never slick, and he never lost his blue-collar humility. (Questlove recently called Withers “the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen,” although perhaps that’s a bit backwards, as Withers actually lived the nine-to-five lunch-pail lifestyle that The Boss only embraced in song.) It was probably an outgrowth of that perspective that led him to leave music in the 1980s, rather than continue to doggedly chase success with unsympathetic new label bosses and a polished, MTV-mode of stardom on the rise. It certainly wasn’t as though his songs had gone out of style — Club Nouveau had a No. 1 hit with a cover of “Lean on Me” just two years after Withers stopped recording.

Perhaps the secret of Bill Withers was that he approached music with a workingman’s sense of purpose, but never a careerist’s desperation. “I don’t know if I’m built to be the center of attention all the time,” he told the Washington Post a decade ago. “I’ve been fortunate enough that the music that I’ve done seems to have its own life without me having to show up everywhere and wave.” Like all great soul singers, he knew when the melody was enough.

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