Quincy Jones had already built an exceptional, prolific and wide-ranging career in multiple genres by the time he met Michael Jackson. He toured with Dizzy Gillespie, arranged Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” and Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz, led his own groups, scored films and TV shows, and showcased his knack for pop-leaning production on records like Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and a string of four consecutive Top Five singles for Lesley Gore in 1963 and 1964.
Jones brought all this training to bear on his work with Jackson, and the pair become one of the most important duos in the history of pop. Between 1979 and 1987, Jackson released Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, a hat trick of Jones-produced albums that sold countless millions of copies and scored 17 Top 10 hits, including nine Number Ones, in the U.S. In honor of Thursday’s 30th anniversary of Bad, Jones spoke with Rolling Stone about his work on the historic LP.
Did you and Michael talk about a vision for Bad before you started working? That’s not the way it works. You go song by song. The songs are the power. They take it home. From what I learned, the melody is the voice of God. That’s what you look for. I have never ever in my life made records for money or fame. That’s how you blow it. ‘Cause God walks out of the room if you’re going after money. And you don’t know how to go after money – it doesn’t work like that. You have to go with your first intuition. If there’s anything I’ve learned at age 84, it’s how little we have to do with most things. It’s divine intervention.
People get into their own opinions about I, me, my, those perspectives on making records. It doesn’t work like that, man. It’s we, us, they – team, all the time. The more you get involved in that team, the better the project’s going to be. It’s an amazing process. I’ve been doing it a long time. But all the way back to when I did Lesley Gore in the Sixties, the least-favorite records of mine were ones at Numbers Two, Six and 11. You ever hear anybody say I got a Top Six record? A Top 11 record? Nuh-uh. And if it’s Number Two, you want to be Number One.
How do you assemble a great team? I had a superstar team way before I even worked with Michael. Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton, Bruce Swedien, Greg Phillinganes – that was way before Michael. These cats are the best in the world.
I’m not guessing. One of the responsibilities of a producer is to know what’s best at everything. A producer’s job is hard, man. It really is. When you get your team all involved going in the same direction, that’s when you make great records.
And it takes total loyalty to the songs. All my musicians think that way. Even if it’s not their song, they’ve got something to add to it. Like, remember James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways?” I had tried to record that with George Benson. But it didn’t have a C section, and that’s what stopped me for George. For James, Rod went into another room and in an hour he wrote a C section. He didn’t put his name on it, didn’t ask for any credits. That’s the kind of dedication you have to have, or God will not answer the phone.
How do you know what’s best for the team or an artist? My experience in the business. I started with big bands, gospel quartets, bebop – I was a stone-cold bebop junkie. That was a revolutionary movement. I’ve been out here 70 years. It’s a long time. You gotta hope you can make all the mistakes you can so you learn. If you don’t make mistakes you don’t learn a thing. I made all the mistakes. All of ’em. But by the time I got to Michael, I’d already made ’em all. I was 50 when I did Thriller. I did Sinatra at 29 years old.
How did you pick songs for Bad? I’ll tell you how it was. On Off the Wall, Michael wrote “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” he wrote “Working Day and Night,” and I got him to write a part of “Get on the Floor” with Louis Johnson – ’cause that was the middle of the Brothers Johnson kicking ass. On Thriller, he did “Beat It” – that was the last one we got – “The Girl Is Mine,” “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’”
All the turmoil [in his life] was starting to mount up, so I said I thought it was time for him to do a very honest album writing all the songs. I suggested that for Bad. He did all but two songs. I made a mistake on the duet with him and Stevie [“Just Good Friends,” written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle]. That didn’t work. But “Man in the Mirror” sure worked. Siedah [Garrett] was one of my 13 songwriters. I had a meeting to ask them for an international kind of anthem to make yourself a better person. And she wrote “Man in the Mirror” with [Glen] Ballard. That did not stop. That baby did it. It was the biggest song from the album. And they were all big – we had five Number One records.
How did you flesh out Jackson’s demos? You have to see that final building in your mind. It doesn’t matter how you build it, but you have to see it first. Somebody has to. The combination of the two of us was perfect. I cannot dance – I used to when I was little – but I’m not a dancer and a singer and all that stuff. That’s what Michael is a genius of. He’s attentive; he gets all the details. He looks at Sammy Davis, James Brown, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly; he didn’t miss nothing. That’s what the real pros are supposed to do. Pay attention and see all the elements. It’s an attitude they have – I want to know how everything works. Curiosity. Sinatra had it too.
I come from an orchestrator background. So we had everything we needed, and if it wasn’t there, we’d hire it, like the Andraé Crouch choir [on “Man in the Mirror”]. I’m an orchestration junkie. You see what’s missing. There’s not enough harmonic support for the bass line. Or I’d tell John Robinson, I need you to give me a one-bar drum break that the whole world can hum. I have synesthesia, so it’s kind of off the wall – I see music before I hear it. It’s off the wall, but it sure works. I see silvers and purples and baby blues.
Music is really emotional architecture. The main thing you have to keep in your mind is love, respect and trust. If you don’t have that, nothing’s gonna happen. That has to be real – where if you ask your team to jump without a net, they have to trust you enough to believe you know what you’re doing.
I loved it every time we went in the studio, and that was a lot. We used to stay up five days and nights with no sleep when we were on a roll. They were carrying second engineers out on stretchers. I was smoking 180 cigarettes a day. I don’t smoke any more.
How did the new instrumental technology affect the recording of Bad? All my life I’d been involved in that stuff. We had the first use of the Fender Rhodes in movies. We had the first Fender Bass in 1953 – without a Fender Bass connected to an electric guitar from 1939, there’d be no rock & roll or Motown. We did jazz records with it at first, one called “Work of Art” by Art Farmer on Prestige Records. And my Ironside theme is the first time the public ever heard a synthesizer. I went to Silicon Valley for the first time 38 years ago to meet Alan Kay. He created Mac One and Mac Two.
That’s been going on since Bach and Beethoven, man. Where you do you think the harpsichord came from? They were trying to find different ways to get the same feel as a keyboard.
How did you pick the singles for Bad? That will take care of itself. I like to put so many [good songs on album] where you can’t really figure out what to put out first. It’s a craft. It’s an emotional craft. I go at every song like it’s the last righteous friend. I’m very fussy about picking songs. You got to pay attention to the song. Our entire business is about a great song. The song is the power. The artist is really the messenger. A great song can make the worst singer in the world a star. And a bad song can’t be saved the three greatest singers in the world. I learned that years ago. It’s good stuff to know.
If one producer does a record, the sequencing is the most important thing, keep it moving all the way through. In 15 seconds, if it doesn’t engage, the ear goes to sleep. They want ear candy. It’s amazing what engages the ear in a great song. Not too many of them going on today – a lot of champagne-selling noises. But I love Kendrick Lamar, the Weekend, Drake.
You have to do your homework, train that right brain. Today especially, nobody reads music. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on. They don’t even ask for chord sheets anymore. They’re playing by ear. That’s cool too, but all music is by ear anyway – it doesn’t hurt if you know what you’re doing. It didn’t hurt Herbie Hancock. Or Stevie Wonder. I met Stevie at 12. And Aretha at 12. And Michael at 12. If they got it at 12, you know they gonna keep on keeping on.
People have no idea what producing records is about. What do you think it is? It’s a tough job. You gotta get a studio, an engineer, background singers, a band, the right songs, the right tempos, the right keys. It doesn’t stop. You gotta babysit, know when to say “let’s take a break” and when to say “let’s do another take.” It’s different for every person. And I worked with all of them. Billie Holiday, Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah Vaughan. But in a way it’s the same thing – for Michael, figuring out what’s right for him, and providing him with the best canvas he ever had in his life.
You don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s in God’s hands. Just make music that gives you goosebumps.