By Peter Lindblad
As far as the Jackson 5 were concerned, the magic wouldn’t last much longer.
1971 would see the Jackson 5 score two #2 hits, with “Mama’s Pearl” and the ballad “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Then the wildfire that was the Jackson 5 began to show signs of diminishing, as “Maybe Tomorrow,” still an R&B Top 5 fave, became their first single not to make the pop Top Ten.
Back at Motown, plans were being put into motion to single out Jermaine and Michael as solo stars, even as the Jackson 5 continued on. Michael was first up. As they were about to turn out the lights on 1971, Michael put out a pair of Top 5 singles, “Got To Be There” and “Rockin’ Robin.” A year later, “Ben,” Michael’s ode to a movie rat, rose to #1.
Jermaine’s solo career, meanwhile, never shifted out of “park.” One Top Ten single, “Daddy’s Home,” was followed by a series of chart failures. It was clear Michael was going to be the breakout star of the Jacksons.
As for the Jackson 5, their flood of album releases had slowed to a trickle, and while their singles still managed to gain a foothold on the R&B charts, their days of ruling the pop charts were over … well, except for 1974’s disco workout “Dancing Machine,” a #2 hit that would be their last for Motown. Overall, though, the material the Jackson 5 were left with during this period was unimaginative and lacked that certain “it” factor that their early hits had.
Two years later, the Jacksons — minus Jermaine, who had married Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel and stayed on with Gordy — left the Motown nest and signed with Epic. In the bargain, they would lose a court case that left them without the 5 next to their name — Motown won the rights to the Jackson 5 title. They would, however, get the chance to work with the architects of Philly soul, songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
The tradeoff allowed the Jacksons greater creative control over their work, and Michael, inquisitive by nature, was thoroughly engaged in the writing and recording process. He watched as Gamble and Huff wrote music and noted how they interacted with musicians. They let him sit by the boards “ … so we could show him how uncomplicated that board was,” says Gamble.
Soaking up the experience, the Jacksons recorded Goin’ Places in 1977 and then Destiny — an album that many consider to be one of the Jacksons’ best — in 1978 with Gamble and Huff. They were reborn, and the material, while perhaps not as packed with hits as their early Motown recordings, matched their newfound vigor.
Gamble and Huff let the Jacksons, and Michael in particular, produce their own material, and that helped spark the group. Working with Gamble and Huff was a learning experience for Michael, and it laid the groundwork for much of what was to come in his future solo work.
“We tried to share with him all our experiences and share with him whatever techniques we had in recording,” says Gamble. “And really, one of the things that he wanted to do was write songs that had a social comment to them. Which Huff and myself, we wrote quite a few songs that talked about love and unity and togetherness amongst all people. And Michael, he gravitated to that, and we also recorded a few songs that had the message and the music. So, later on, Michael started recording songs like ‘We Are The World’ … I mean, he wrote some great songs.”
For his part, Gamble also watched Michael at work, and the future King of Pop kept him on his toes.
“I learned a lot from [Michael], because he was futuristic in his approach to recording,” says Gamble. “He knew quite a bit about what he wanted to do and how he wanted it to sound. One example is that he overdubbed his voice maybe about seven or eight times, which I had never done before, and I told him, I said, ‘Let’s try it,’ because the studio is like a laboratory. You try everything. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you don’t have to have it.”
Working on ‘The Wiz’
His invaluable apprenticeship with Gamble and Huff taught Michael a great deal, while also giving him the courage to expand his horizons.
In 1978, Jackson hit the big screen, appearing as the Scarecrow in the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical “The Wiz.” His contributions did not end there. He also worked on the soundtrack, which was produced by Quincy Jones.
This meeting of musical masterminds would forever change the world of pop music.
Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer who’d worked with Jones since the late 1950s — they met while working on a Dinah Washington record — was hired to help with the project.
“Quincy called me one day and said, ‘We’re going to New York to do this musical movie, ‘The Wiz’ …” remembers Swedien, a Midwesterner by birth who, at the time of Jones’ offer, was unloading moving boxes in Chicago after living in California for a number of years. “By the way, he told me, he said, ‘There’s a kid there who is really something else. His name is Michael Jackson.’ But that didn’t prepare me for the Michael Jackson I met.”
By this time, Michael was around 20 years old. When Swedien met him, Michael “ … was very shy, very quiet.” Jackson let his artistry speak for itself, and Swedien was floored by it.
“He came in and recorded ‘Ease On Down the Road’ with no lyrics in front of him,” says Swedien. “And I thought to myself, ‘Holy cow!’ Here’s someone heavy-duty all right. And from that point on, every recording, every major record that I did with Michael, he never had the lyrics in front of him. He would stay up the night before all night and memorize the lyrics, and the reason he did that was he loved to sing with the lights out.”
Perhaps it was all those years living in the glare of the spotlight that made Michael more comfortable working in the dark. Whatever the reason, Swedien was thrilled to be working with such a sublime talent. That, of course, goes for Jones, as well.
As a producer, Jones, who studied orchestration in Paris with the acclaimed Nadia Boulanger, has precious few equals, and he proved it on the soundtrack for “The Wiz,” even though it only reached #40 on the U.S. Billboard 200.
“Charlie Smalls wrote most of the music [for “The Wiz”],” says Swedien. “Quincy revamped it all once we got into the recording process and orchestrated it and everything, but the songs were really strong. ‘Ease On Down The Road’ … that’s a pretty powerful piece of R&B music, and it just fit Michael to a T.”
What many don’t know is that Jones was severely under the gun to finish all the arrangements before recording began. To hear Swedien tell it, Jones had everything under control.
“It was a Sunday, and we were set to record the opening and closing titles the next day, Monday, with a huge orchestra, an 80-piece orchestra at A&R studios in New York,” says Swedien. ‘And Quincy and I were living together at the Drake Hotel as 65th and Park in New York, and I noticed Quincy hadn’t written anything, hadn’t put a note to a piece of paper. And then, in the afternoon, on that Sunday before we were set to record, he invited a bunch of our pals over for dinner.”
Understandably, Swedien was concerned his friend wasn’t going to be able to pull it off, even though he knew Quincy worked well under pressure.
“So we had our dinner and everything, and I said, ‘Quincy, you know what we’re doing tomorrow. You haven’t even put a note on paper yet for the big 80-piece orchestra,’” continues Swedien. “He said, ‘No problem. Don’t worry about a thing.’ So we went to bed. I went to bed anyway. About four in the morning, I woke up for a minute and looked under my hotel room door, and the lights were blazing. We had a big apartment at the Drake. And the dining room table was covered with sheet music, with music paper. And the pages were black with notes. It looked like flies had been shitting on them all day. And so I tippy-toed out and asked Quincy how’s it going, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing. Ain’t no problem. Ain’t nothing but a move.’”
And move he did, getting it all done under the wire. The next morning, Jones and Swedien headed for the studio in a cab. Under his arm, Jones carried a bunch of music paper.
“We had this army of copyists just waiting for us, and they had tables around the edge of the studio, and they had these copyists copying the parts for the musicians,” says Swedien. “And the session was due to start at 1 in the afternoon. And at 10 o’clock, Quincy and I arrived, and he started handing out this paper that was just covered with notes and I said, ‘Quincy, how are you doing?’ And he just smiled. Didn’t say a word. Just smiled.”
So the orchestra is assembled. The copyists finish their work, and the parts are passed out to the musicians — “Big strings,” says Swedien. “I think it was 16 violins, eight violas, eight or 10 cello basses, brass, woodwinds … everything.”
The tension in the room was thick. Nobody spoke a word.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that studio,” says Swedien. “Quincy had not heard a note — incidentally, I should explain, too, in our dining room in the apartment, there wasn’t one musical instrument. No piano, no guitar, no nothing. The only musical instrument was between Quincy’s ears. And so, the conductor raised his baton, they played through the thing and this gorgeous, dream-like sound filled the studio and there was not one note out of place. Is that incredible? Quincy had looked at me and smiled, ‘Ain’t too bad, is it?’
Jones had done his job, and now it was time for Swedien to do his.
“And what I did on ‘The Wiz’ was, I built a sound truck that we took all over New York because we filmed on location in New York, and I had to play back that music while the cameras shot it, and boy that was fun,” says Swedien. “And we had restrictions in New York. You can’t have more than 23-foot axle limit on a truck, so I had to jam a whole recording studio into a truck that we could drive through the streets. That was tough. But it worked. We did it.”