About the song
Penned by singer Jimmy Jones and songwriter Otis Blackwell, “Handy Man” was initially recorded by Jimmy Jones in 1959, and by Del Shannon in 1964. In 1977, it was then performed by James Taylor making it a three-minute piece.
It was originally recorded by The Sparks of Rhythm, a group Jones had been a member of when he wrote it, although he was not with them when they recorded it. That version was in a minor key and had a completely different melody. When Jimmy Jones recorded it, the song was changed to a major key, with a completely different melody, which has become the version that is generally known today.
In 1959, Jones recorded the song himself, in a version which had been reworked by Blackwell, who also produced the session. In addition, Blackwell also provided the whistling, which is prominently heard throughout the whole song. “Handy Man” reached No. 3 on the R&B charts and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, becoming a million seller.
The song was a hit, again, in 1964, reaching No. 22, for Del Shannon, and again for James Taylor, whose slow version was a hit in 1977.
The song is noted for Jones singing “Come-a, come-a come-a come-a, come come-a, yeah” lyrics, which are heard at the beginning as well as in the Coda of the song, before the song’s fade.
James Taylor’s Version: A Grammy-Winning Version
Measured in terms of popularity on any chart, Taylor’s version of the song was the most successful. It reached No. 2 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart and reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It reached No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and was knocked out of the pole position by his then-wife Carly Simon.
Taylor’s version also earned him his second Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Taylor’s version featured Leah Kunkel, the ex-wife of Russ Kunkel, as a backup singer. She sang the “Comma Comma” sections in harmony, which is heard after the first time the whole lyric is sung, as well as in the Coda of the song.
Allmusic critic Jason Elias compares Jones’ original with Taylor’s version stating,
“Where Jones’s version was chipper and a little obnoxious,” Taylor’s version “is so laid back it’s almost somnolent.”
Moreover, Elias notes that Taylor’s slowed down version has the benefit of allowing him to shade the words in new ways. Further, Elias also praises Taylor’s guitar playing.
Watch James Taylor perform “Handy Man.”