Advertisement

Remembering Michael Jackson

They owned the '80s and made history

The producer who brought about the 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller'

July 12, 2009|Quincy Jones

Like the world, I was devastated by the news that Michael Jackson had suddenly left the room. This blessed artist commanded the stage with the grace of an antelope, shattered recording industry records and broke down cultural boundaries around the world, yet remained the gentlest of souls.

Michael Jackson was a different kind of entertainer. A man-child in many ways, he was beyond professional and dedicated. Evoking Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown all at once, he'd work for hours, perfecting every kick, gesture and movement so that they came together precisely the way they were intended to. Together we shared the '80s, achieving heights that I can humbly say may never be reached again and reshaped the music business forever.

For some reason I have had the honor of meeting young performers when they reach the age of 12. There was Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Tevin Campbell and, of course, Michael Jackson. I was fully aware of Michael and impressed by the achievements that he'd reached with the Jackson 5, but it never crossed my mind that we would eventually work together. But as is always the case, divinity interceded into the process.

In 1978, Sidney Lumet pulled me kicking and screaming into doing the music for "The Wiz," and in hindsight I'm so glad he did. As the scarecrow, Michael dove into the filming of "The Wiz" with everything that he had, not only learning his lines but those of everyone in the cast. Prior to filming, Michael and I were working at my home and he asked if I could help find him a producer to work with him on his first solo album from Epic.

At rehearsals, during the part where the scarecrow is pulling proverbs from his stuffing, Michael kept saying "So-Crates" instead of "Socrates." After about the third time, I pulled him aside and told him the correct pronunciation. He looked at me with these big wide eyes and said, "Really?" and it was at that moment that I said, "Michael, I'd like to produce your album."

It was that wonderment that I saw in his eyes that locked me in. I knew that we could go into completely unexplored territory, a place that as a jazz musician gave me goose bumps.

I pulled my "A-team" crew together, anchored by Rod Temperton, one of the best songwriters who has ever lived, and we embarked on making "Off the Wall." I simply loved working with Michael. He was so shy he'd sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat there with my hands over my eyes with the lights off. We tried all kinds of tricks that I'd learned over the years to help him with his artistic growth, like dropping keys just a minor third to give him flexibility and a more mature range in the upper and lower registers, and more than a few tempo changes.

I also tried to steer him to songs with more depth, some of them about real relationships -- we weren't going to make it with ballads to rodents (i.e. "Ben"). And Seth Riggs, a leading vocal coach, gave him vigorous warm-up exercises to expand his top and bottom range by at least a fourth, which I desperately needed to get the vocal drama going. We approached that record like we were going into battle. "Off the Wall" would sell 10 million copies.

Anyone who tells you that they knew a record was going to be a big hit is a flat-out liar. We had no idea "Off the Wall" was going to be as successful as it was, but we were thrilled. Michael had moved from the realm of bubble-gum pop and planted his flag square in the heart of the musical pulse of the '80s, but what came next, I don't think any of us were ready for.

The drama surrounding "Thriller" seemed to never end. As we were recording the album, Steven Spielberg asked me to do a storybook song with Michael for "E.T." We were already behind schedule on "Thriller," but great, no problem. The movie was a big hit, we loved Steven, and so, off to work we went with Rod Temperton and Marilyn and Alan Bergman writing the song. Naturally, of course, this would evolve into Steven wanting us to do an "E.T." album.

Four months to complete "Thriller," already behind schedule, no problem. Off to work we went. In any event, it all worked out . . . Michael and I won Grammys for the album, and it became a collector's item.

With two months to get "Thriller" done, we dug in and really hit it. Michael, Rod, the great engineer Bruce Swedien and I had all spent so much time together by now that we had a shorthand, so moving quickly wasn't a problem. I told Michael that we needed a black rock 'n' roll tune -- a black "My Sharona" -- and a begging tune for the album. He came back with "Beat It" and Rod came back with "The Lady in My Life."

Rod also brought in "Thriller" and Michael sang his heart out on it. At one point during the session the right speaker burst into flames. How's that for a sign?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|