I met Michael Jackson in 1972, when he was twelve, at a mid-afternoon party at Sammy Davis’s house in Los Angeles, while we were watching a movie. Ed Sullivan Show of the Jackson Five, which Sammy had programmed to record on a forerunner of home video. Michael continues to be a genius of pop music, but his greatness has yet to be well interpreted, not even by himself. He started out in the sixties as a child prodigy under the tutelage of Berry Gordy, the head of Motown. Few understand the extent to which Michael’s hometown of Gary, Indiana, was a disaster: Michael’s family had already been thinking about how to escape from that place. It seemed to me that Michael had the potential to go way beyond the great but easy music he had made at Motown with the Jackson Five, songs like ‘Dancing Machine’ and ‘Ben’, the killer rat love song. As Michael himself said on the TV special Motown 25: “I love working with my brothers, but…”. Child stars often die out past adolescence, but Michael was different. I will always love him. Today, critics seem determined to erase it from history, but that will not happen, for sure. They call it history for nothing. Elvis got weird; the same happened to others, advanced and in their professional careers. Michael Jackson has a place of his own in pop history: he is number one, no matter how much some say that the Eagles have sold more records than he has in America, or call him an eccentric character. In worldwide sales, Michael is the biggest.
Our first collaboration was in The magician, where I acted as music supervisor. In fact, I didn’t want to work on that movie. Except for three songs – ‘Home’ and ‘Ease on Down the Road’, composed by Charlie Smalls, and ‘Brand New Day’, written by Luther Vandross – the music did not reach me, despite the enormous success of the theatrical version. If I did it, it was because Sidney Lumet asked me, who had given me a first chance with the soundtrack with The lender, and then five more movies. I felt that I owed him more than one favor; I owed him a lot. Sidney was married fourteen years to Gail, the daughter of Lena Horne. On the fourth night of shooting the biggest scene, “Emerald City,” Lumet had gone over budget for the first time in his career. After the last shot, his wife told him she wanted a divorce. Like so many other “workaholics” including myself, he asked if he couldn’t wait for the movie to finish, but Gail said, “I’ve heard that fourteen times.” Sidney was devastated. I remember when I saw them for the first time, sitting on the floor at a party Lena had thrown in her apartment, in love with each other. They were a wonderful couple and they had two beautiful daughters; he had once helped them change their diapers. Everyone was very affected. I, both Sidney and Geil, adored them.
As for me, Michael was the best of The magician, apart from finally being able to work with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I was proud to have been their friend since the sixties and one of their few collaborators on several wonderful songs that they later wrote. After undergoing surgery, of course, I had put myself to work, and the success of my records Body Heat and Mellow Madness –Where there were four songs by the Brothers Johnson, who were members of my band at the time– it had lifted my spirits a lot. In fact, Mellow Madness it served as a launching pad for the Brothers, who would end up making four multiplatinum albums, which I produced.
When I met Michael Jackson, he had already been in the music world for fifteen years, but they had not looked for a song for him to show off in the movie. No one seemed to know what Michael Jackson was up to. With Lumet’s help, we shoehorn the scarecrow and crows song, ‘You Can’t Win.’ At nineteen, he had the wisdom of a man in his sixties and the enthusiasm of a child. He was a genuinely shy and handsome boy who hid his amazing intelligence behind giggles and half smiles. But beneath that exterior of shyness was an artist who ardently sought perfection and yearned to become the best. entertainer of the world, that is clear. James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly; These were Michael’s heroes. He spent hours watching videos of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers in order to imitate the innate grace of their movements. Michael wanted to be the best at everything, assimilate all the knowledge. He was the best of each category in order to create a number and character that were not equal. Exactly the same thing that Sammy Davis did.
The thing began looking for examples to imitate, but later the line that separates reality from fantasy was blurred. Michael is a sponge, a complete chameleon. She has certain qualities identical to those of the great jazz singers that I had worked with: Ella, Sinatra, Sassy, Aretha, Ray Charles, Dinah. Each and every one of them had that purity, that absolutely personal sound and that flame that pushed them to greatness. Singing they silenced their pain, healed their wounds, took iron out of their problems. Music freed them from their emotional prisons. The press laughs at the expense of Michael’s clothes and his peculiar way of life, but I don’t know how anyone could expect him to end up like the next door neighbor, since since he was five years old he has been in the public eye. How do you get used to having a dozen fifteen-year-olds hanging around your house twenty-four hours a day and every day of the week? The same thing happened to Presley. One day I asked Michael about the girls, and he said, “They have always been there, that I remember.” In fact, according to him, the song ‘Billie Jean’ was born from an incident involving a young lady who scaled the wall that surrounds Michael’s estate and took up residence by the pool. Later she would try to sue him, assuring that Michael was the father of one of her twins.
The first time Michael came to my house he said:
“I’m preparing material to make my first solo album for Epic Records. Can you help me find a producer?” I replied: “Right now I am trying to start the pre-production of a film, but I will take that into account.” While we rehearsed the musical scenes of The magician, I was more and more impressed. Michael had a super professional attitude. He would show up at five in the morning to get scarecrow makeup done and he had memorized everything he had to do with each shot. Not only that, but they knew all the dance steps, all the dialogues and the lyrics of all the songs they sang in the montage. Part of his role was to remove from his straw chest small strips of paper with proverbs of famous philosophers. One afternoon, while rehearsing a scene, I noticed that he always mispronounced the name of the Greek philosopher Socrates, accentuating the second
syllable. After three days no one had corrected him, in view of which I took him aside for a pause and said in a low voice: “Hey Michael, before it’s too late, I think you should know that the name of that philosopher is pronounced “Socrates”, emphasizing the first syllable “.
And he said, “Come on, really?”
How well he took it! Those big eyes were wide open, and I, at that very moment, made a decision: “I would like to try to produce your new album.”
After filming the movie was over, Michael returned to Epic with his managers, Freddy DeMann and Ron Weisner, and told the bigwigs at the record company that he wanted me to produce the album for him. White as black, they pouted. After all, we were in 1977 and what prevailed was disco music. The song was, more less: “Quincy Jones is too jazzy. He has only produced dance hits with the Brothers Johnson ”. Those who brought Michael to Motown to define me had said that a few years before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye called to propose to do something together. Michael conveyed his concern to me about this, and I said, “If we are destined to work together, God will make it so. Do not worry”. Michael is a devout Jehovah’s Witness – sometimes he even dressed as a normal person and went around the neighborhoods spreading his gospel – but he did not want this matter to depend on religion. He went back to Epic with DeMann and Weisner and said, “I don’t care what you think: Quincy is going to produce my record.” They accepted. We did the rehearsals at my house. Michael was so shy that he would get behind the couch and sing with his back to me while I sat there with my hands over my eyes and the lights off. To help you grow as an artist, we tried all kinds of things that I had learned over the years. For example, lowering the pitch by a minor third to give the voice more flexibility and a more mature range, both in the highs and lows, or changing the tempo of many songs. I also tried to guide him into deeper issues, several of them about relationships. Seth Riggs, a prominent vocal trainer, gave him some great warm-up exercises to get him to extend the range, both treble and bass, by at least a quarter, which I desperately needed if I wanted to strengthen the drama of his voice.
We got along well. When he was ready to record, I assembled my band of thugs: Rod “Worms” Temperton, one of the greatest songwriters ever, a man with the melodic and counterpoint instinct of a classical composer; Bruce “Svensk” Swedien, the sound engineering guru, whom I met in the 1950s when we worked together in Chicago with Basie and Dinah; the A-team of Greg “Mouse” Phillinganes, a virtuoso keyboard player, who five years ago played hooky there in Detroit to meet me; Jerry Hey, brutal trumpeter and arranger, introduced to me by Cannonball Adderley during a seminar when Jerry was studying at the University of Illinois at Champaign; Louis “Thunder-Thumbs” Johnson, the youngest of the Brothers Johnson, who had played electric bass in the band I was touring with; John “JR” Robinson, my Berklee-era partner and Rufus drummer; the Brazilian Paulinho Da Costa on percussion; and many others. I have always been fortunate to work with great musicians and technicians, and all these people were not only like a family of friends, but, as it were, my own musical mob: each of them was a black belt in their category. We jumped on that record, to the death. Michael put most of the voice “live”, without overdubs. From the result of those sessions, the album titled Off the Wall, millions of copies were sold. So jazz, huh? The irony of all this was that everyone who pouted at Epic at first, black and white, kept their jobs thanks to the success of Off the Wall, at the time, the best-selling black music album in history.
Author: Quincy Jones. Translation: Luis Murillo Fort. Kultrum Books, 2021. 528 pages. 23.50 euros.
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