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Quincy Jones on Michael Jackson: 'We made history together'

Like the world, last week 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 Five, 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 with the cast, 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 'Thriller' saga

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, which none of us had ever seen before. How's that for a sign?

We finished the album at 9 a.m. the morning we needed to deliver the reference copy. We had three studios going all night long. Michael in one putting final touches on "Billie Jean," Bruce in another, and Eddie Van Halen, who I brought in, in yet another recording his parts for "Beat It."

We all gathered in Studio A to listen to the test pressing with this enormous anticipation. This was it, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to "Off the Wall." And it sounded . . . terrible. After all of that great work we were doing, it wasn't there. There was total silence in the studio, and one by one we walked across the hall for some alone time. We'd put too much material on the record. Michael was in tears.

We took two days off, and in the next eight days, we set about reshaping the album, mixing just one song a day. Rod cut a verse from "The Lady in My Life," and we shortened the long, long intro to "Billie Jean," something Michael hated to do because he said the intro "made him want to dance."

MTV breakthrough

We delivered the album and watched "Billie Jean" -- thanks to Michael's debut performance of the moonwalk on the 25th anniversary of Motown special -- "Beat It" and "Thriller" just explode, fueled in part by heavy video rotation on MTV. Prior to "Billie Jean," MTV wasn't playing videos with black artists. "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and "Thriller" took us straight to the stratosphere. After those three videos, virtually every video on MTV was trying to emulate their style.

Michael, the music and MTV all went to the mountaintop. It was the perfect convergence of forces. In the music business, every decade you have a phenomenon. In the '40s you had Sinatra, in the '50s Elvis, in the '60s the Beatles, in the '70s the innovation of Dolby, despite the best efforts of Stevie Wonder and Elton John. In the '80s you had Michael Jackson. For everyone from 8 to 80, he was the biggest entertainer on the planet. Followed up with "Bad" and the collective on "We Are the World," we all made history together. We owned the '80s and our souls would be connected forever.

Shortly after "Thriller" came out and simply chewed up everything in its way, I went to see Count Basie at the Palladium with Benny Carter and Ed Eckstine. Basie was like a father to me, having kind of adopted me when I was 13, and he wasn't in the greatest shape. He was in a wheelchair and when he saw me, he said with a sense of pride, "Man, [what] you and Michael did, me and Duke would never even dream about nothin' that big. We wouldn't even dare to dream about it." You can't imagine how proud I felt, hearing that from one of my idols, not realizing that it would be the last time that I'd see him alive.

There will be a lot written about what came next in Michael's life, but for me all of that is just noise. I promise you in 50, 75, 100 years, what will be remembered is the music. It's no accident that almost three decades later, no matter where I go in the world, in every club and karaoke bar, like clockwork, you hear "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Starting Something," "Rock With You" and "Thriller."

In every language on the planet, from prison yards in the Philippines [Updated at 7:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly said the prison yards were in Thailand.] to Thrilltheworld.com, that will be the beautiful, grand legacy of Michael Jackson.

--Quincy Jones

Photo: Quincy Jones, right, with Jackson at the 1984 Grammy Awards, where "Thriller" won a record-breaking eight awards. Associated Press

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Comments () | Archives (26)

That's some good eulogizin' I feel like I just sat by myself at the feet of Quincy Jones and he just told me a great great story that no one else ever heard.

Thank you Quincy, Michael, and all the great people at Westlake Audio that came together to make that history. Paula, if you're out there, I'm thinking about you.

Dear Quincy Jones and the Soul of Michael Jackson:

Michael, now that you are in the better Life beyond this one up there in the Heavens, would you be so kind as to do Quiincy, me and all of humanity a huge spiritual favor? We know that God already has asked you to do a show for all the Souls on the other side, but could you find an eternal moment in your schedule to fly spiritually over to the Moon this July 20th, 2009. You see, Michael, it is going to be the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon---that "one small step, and one giant leap" for all Mankind. When you land down in the Sea of Tranquility you are going to meet up with Al Shepherd, Wally Schirra, Yuri Gagarin, Komorov, Grissom, White, Chaffey, and other US, Russian, and international astronauts and cosmonauts who, like you, are now experiencing eternity. May all of you hug each other well as you look back at us down here on Earth. Share with them the profound beauty of your musical Soul, Michael, just as they will share with you the awesome, inspiring, and courageous "dreams" of their lives too. And, in the midst of your eternal time together remember how great it would be if you taught them how to do the Moonwalk! Humanity will be watching, Michael. Rest in Peace, knowing how HAPPY you made the People of the Earth. Love, Mrs. Louise Marie Catherine Doherty, An American Teacher, whose Father worked on the Apollo Program.

When i was a children i've learned to love the music thanks my father and Michael Jackson... My life was dedicated to a recording studio that now is only a remember... I'm empty and i have a terrible crisis because a part of me is destroyed for the Michael's death. The music for me is my life and i pray all the producers to give opportunities to the real musicians and singers... We are the world... we are artists..

The only public reminiscence of Michael that really matters, in the millions of words being poured out. Thank you, Quincy Jones!

Thank you Quincy.

The best musical/historical article that could be written by a supreme music creator.

great info... thank you for post

Sorry Mr Jones but I gotta say that this whole article feels like an unseemly attempt to claim more than whatever partial credit you might deserve for MJ's success. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't seem to recall ever seeing you gliding across a stage like Fred Astaire...and what the hell does "..in the '70s the innovation of Dolby, despite the best efforts of Stevie Wonder and Elton John" (both of whom were better at either singing or songwriting than MJ) mean? It was the level of artistry and showmanship that MJ brought to his performances, not seen before and probably never to be seen again, that took him to the level of Elvis and the Beatles, not his record producer.

Whenever I think of Michael Jackson I think of Quincy Jones. I always wished that they would have done another album together. I really enjoyed reading this.

Quincy Jones is a musical genius in his own right. To jghedge -- why so bitter? Even the Beatles would never have reached the stratosphere of success they had if it had not been for their producer, George Martin. Quincy Jones has been an icon for more than just the 80s when he collaborated with Jackson -- he has been one for the decades before and since.

Mr. Jones, thank you for sharing a glimpse of your time with Mr. Jackson with the rest of us. The music is what mattered to to him and it is all that should matter to us. Every now and again the planets align and history is made; I am fortunate that I was able to witness (and listen to) the result. I enjoyed Mr. Jackson's music as a child and again with 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller', it is those albums that remain a tribute to the artist, producer and team that participated in creating them.

On behalf of Thrill the World Los Angeles, thank you, Quincy. We are honored to be a part of Michael's legacy in our own quirky little way.

Thank you, Mr. Q! You've just verified for me what I've long suspected: Joe Jackson did not create Michael Jackson - you did. I can't thank you enough and I wish he were still here!

I hope you'll share more stories with fans of Michael Jackson and now YOUR fans, too, either here or on your podcast. They will help ease the pain of losing him.

By the way, I bought your autobiography a few years ago in hardcover, and I've always said that THIS is the way an autobiography ought to be crafted. It was brilliant.

Mrs. Louise Marie Catherine Doherty....thank you!

I cried! That was beautiful and it made me smile....Michael was an extraodinary kind of person because he touched so many, many hearts and lives.

Michael we miss you TERRIBLY we will never, ever forget how you made our lives a little better here on earth....May God keep you in his arms and may you have sweet eternal rest!

Mrs. Louise Marie Catherine Doherty....thank you!

I cried! That was beautiful and it made me smile....Michael was an extraodinary kind of person because he touched so many, many hearts and lives.

Michael we miss you TERRIBLY we will never, ever forget how you made our lives a little better here on earth....May God keep you in his arms and may you have sweet eternal rest!

Go and say goodbye Quincy... He'd like you there!

Love, x


To Lghedge: We didn't read the same article, did we? I read one that was complimentary and put music history in perspective. You read one that was "bitter".

And actually without Quincy's arrangements those two albums wouldn't have come off as well. Face it, those albums were as much Quincy's as Michael's. Michael was the vessel that delivered the performance, but Q's arrangements stand out grandly.

michel was the best of the best in the wold hes music is herd olover the goble viva michael el vive en nosotros con todo respeto que se merese la familia de michael y sus ninos es un gran dolor al perder a un padre a un ermano un hijo mis pesame a la familia jackson es una gran perdida lo ciento mucho de todo corazon los amo mucho hasta la sulla mis respeto QUE VIVA LOS JACKSON Y I LOVE YOU MICHAEL FOR EVER FROM A GOD FANNNNNNNNNNNN

To Quincy,
Thank you for this wonderful recollection of Michael Jackson. Michael's pinnacle years were the Off The Wall and Thriller albums, and without you we would not have that music.

I consider Off The Wall to be perhaps the best 'disco' album of all time. Going against the likes of the Bee Gees, Chic, and so many others. And George Benson's Give Me The Night is simply magical -- certainly seems you had the A-team on that project as well.

Ignore the noise and take in the artistry that was Michael Jackson. That's all that matters. RIP, MJ.

Mr. Jones:

I say this with the utmost respect but this article is more about you and your contributions to his success than it is about Michael. But even if it had given us the behind the scenes insight to Michael's personality as is touted, I would have still found it opportunistic and self serving. Why? Because I came to this site angry. After reading your ill timed comments about Michael Jackson's "obviously wanting to be white" I felt you deserved some chastising.

While I am aware of your "great love for Michael", I want to know why, during a period of so much grief, did you feel it necessary to bring this up now? Do you think you are the only person that has "seen his kids "? Are you the lone voice of authority that needs to speak on what Michael wanted to be or not to be. I strongly suggest sir that you use a bit more discretion when trying to bring attention to yourself.

When that awful day comes, when the world is deprived of the beautiful noise you create,
let's hope some sarcastic, self serving, ignorant persons does not drown out our grief by
bring up your "obvious" affinity for non-black women. When living in a glass house Mr. Jones, it is not wise to throw stones.


It is true what a few commentators have mentioned/noticed before me, this article - even though he does mention Michael - is clearly more about Quincy Jones himself rather than MJ. Read carefully and you will notice, as he speaks of bringing his "A-team" together for the work on the albums and as he concludes with a personal note about himself.

Not to say its a negative MJ article though. Im just saying, this does not sound like a man in grief over the loss of a friend writing this, but more of somebody talking about his own role in the music phenomenom aforementioned in the article above.

Quincy is so full of himself. Although he had a lot to do with Thriller's success, most people would not know who he is without Michael Jackson.

I thank Quincy Jones for the sentiments well said. I think the greatest events happened under Mr Quincy Jones arm . I also feel that a greater moment could of happened had they continued together for the 3rd installment the recording after Thriller. Yet what is done is done and we all are thankful for the moments!

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