Last Wednesday we introduced our treatment for a feature film based on the life of bandleader and composer Quincy Jones (read it here). We followed the twenty-seven time Grammy winner from his childhood on the south side of Chicago through his successful career as a bandleader, record producer and Hollywood film composer.
At the end of the first half of our story, Quincy suffered a pair of severe brain aneurysms. Believing he would not survive, his family arranged a memorial service at the Shrine in Los Angeles.
Part II of our story opens ten years later…
Quincy Jones wrote, produced or arranged all the records you’ll hear in The Quincy Jones Story, except for a few early recordings intended to capture his youthful experience with the great big bands. We take the text for our story from his own recollections in an interview with Alex Haley in the July 1990 issue of Playboy.
The Quincy Jones Story
I knew it from the first time I heard it … because the hair stood straight up on my arms. That’s a sure sign, and it’s never once been wrong. All the brilliance that had been building inside Michael Jackson for twenty-five years just erupted … That energy was contagious and we had it cranked so high one night that the speakers in the studio actually overloaded and burst into flames. First time I ever say anything like that in forty years in the business.
“Wanna Be Starting Something” performed by Michael Jackson (from Thriller)
Part II, Scene II: Back in 1974, Quincy’s jazz career had been sidelined by his health condition. While recording his first album since his aneurysms, Mellow Madness, Quincy works with two musicians from Billy Preston’s band, George and Louis Johnson. He enjoys working with them and soon finds himself producing their debut album, Look Out for #1. This launches a string of successful pop/R&B productions that would lead him to his legendary collaborations with Michael Jackson.
I was afraid … So for a long time I didn’t even try to work. I was also very weak from the surgery … The surgeon who operated on me warned me not to play the trumpet. He had put a clip on my artery to keep it closed, and he told me that I’d blow off that clip and kill myself if I tried to blow that horn. I didn’t believe him and I started blowing the horn, and one night, I hit one of those high notes and I felt something crack inside, like my head was gonna break right open… Well the doctor didn’t have to warn me again. I stopped playing the trumpet and I had to leave the band.
Surviving … made me realize that I didn’t have anything to be afraid of, except maybe giving up on myself. So I got together with two of the guys who’d gone on the tour with me — the Johnson Brothers, who had a great sound on guitar and bass — and produced a record with them. We wound up with four hits in a row and there I was, smack dab back in the record business.
“Q” performed by the Brothers Johnson (from Right on Time)
I do have a tendency to become obsessed. When I’ve got a creative mode going with my composing partners, Rod Temperton and Siedah Garrett — I don’t want you to get the idea I do this all alone — my mind gets so fired up that I can’t turn it off and go to sleep at night. I can actually hear a song in my mind, completely orchestrated from start to finish, before we even go into the studio with my sound engineer, Bruce Swedien, to record it. But I’ve got to wait until the last minute to be at my best. It’s the fever of the recording session that gets my juices going.
“Give me the Night” performed by George Benson (from Give me the Night)
Part II, Scene III: Quincy is asked by a friend, Alex Haley, to compose the score for a television mini-series based on his novel, Roots, which traced his ancestry back seven generations to life before slavery in Gambia. Working on the project inspires Quincy’s own search into the legacy of African music. His
I was at a party in LA and ran into this beautiful brother from San Francisco who was writing this book about the story of his family and the history of black people in America, all the way back through slavery to Africa. He called it Roots, and it was just about the most moving and powerful story I’d ever heard. Well, it so happened that at the same time I was on a journey of my own, doing research on the evolution of black music, so I felt like it was fated that [we] met.
African music had always been regarded in the West as primitive and savage, but when you take the time to really study it, you see that it’s as structured and sophisticated as European classical music, with the same basic components as you’ll find in a symphony orchestra — instruments that are plucked, instruments that are beaten and instruments that are blown with reeds. And it’s music from the soil — powerful, elemental. Life-force music.
“Oluwa (Many Rains Ago)” featuring Letta Mbulu (from the soundtrack to Roots, composed and conducted by Quincy Jones)
Composers from Bizet to Stravinsky have drawn on African influences. And in slave-ship times, it started spreading into the New World, from Brazil all the way up through Haiti to Cuba, through the West Indies, until some of the ships started landing in Virginia and New Orleans. The original African influence had been watered down and assimilated with other sounds along the way, but it was still strong enough that in 1692 the Virginia colony decided to ban the drum, because the slaves used it as a means of communication and that was a threat to plantation owners. But that didn’t stop the slaves: They started making music with hand claps and foot stomps, anything to keep the spirit alive. The slaves weren’t allowed to practice their own religions either, but the black Christian churches became the keepers of the flame for black music in America. From Gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, rock and roll, all the way to rap, you can trace the roots straight back to Africa.
Part II, Scene IV: Quincy produces the score for the film adaptation of the successful musical, The Wiz. The film is a commercial and critical failure. During the project, nineteen year old Michael Jackson, who had been cast to play the Scarecrow, asked Quincy Jones to recommend some producers he could work with now that he had left Motown to record a solo album for Epic.
There’s no question that he’s brilliant — the most gifted composer and performer in popular music today. But I think it trivializes Michael to call him eccentric. He’s an incredibly rich and complex human being with both the wisdom of an eighty-five-year-old sage and the magical, childlike curiosity and wonder of Peter Pan. And the intensity of his creative energy is awesome, like a force of nature.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” performed by Michael Jackson (from Bad)
Part II, Scene V: January 28, 1985. Quincy’s success with Michael Jackson makes him the most important record producer in America, and he directs this new found influence into a charity project that raises more than $60 million (a figure still growing) for the fight against famine in Africa. “We Are the World” also brings together an extraordinary menagerie of celebrity musicians for a single session.
With all those superstars involved, it was like organizing D Day to get them into the same studio on the same day. We had only ten hours to do the whole thing and we had to get it right in one session because there wasn’t going to be a second one. Lionel and Michael and I knew all the things that could go wrong, so we planned it right down to where everybody in the chorus would be standing and where every microphone would be positioned so we’d pick up each voice distinctly. And we didn’t know what to expect with all those egos in the same room together. But they must have checked them at the door because the mood in the studio was like a living embodiment of the idea behind the song. As one after another showed up — Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, just about all the top people in the business — the voltage in that studio just kept rising and rising. For the first hour they were signing autographs for each other. And that spirit of brotherhood communicated itself very vividly on the sound track and in the video…
I say it’s a strange kind of mind to find fault with a project [for being to commercial] that raised fifty million dollars to feed the hungry. Thanks to Harry Belafonte, who planted the seed for the whole project, and Ken Kragen, who got it off the ground, We Are the World raised the public consciousness about world hunger, and that helped push the government into coming up with millions more… Anybody who wants to throw stones at that can get up off his ass and go do something better. There’s still plenty of starving Africans.
“We are the World” performed by USA for Africa
Part II, Scene VI: Our story ends in 1990 (when Quincy was interviewed for the July issue of Playboy), with the successful release of Back on the Block, an album which blends jazz, R&B and rap. Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and other jazz legends are credited alongside Ice T and other contemporary rappers.
[Rap] is no fad, man. And it’s not just a new kind of music. It’s a whole new subculture that’s been invented by the disenfranchised. When you have no place in society, you say, ‘Fuck it, we’ll start our own.’ Everything from graffiti to break dancing to popping and locking, hip-hop and now rap — the voice that vocalizes hip-hop — they’re symbols of a new subculture that comes directly from the streets.
Black music has always been the prologue to social change. It was true in the fifties with modern jazz and rock & roll, and I think rap is a sign of the kind of changes that are sweeping the world today.
“Prologue / Back on the Block” performed by Quincy Jones, featuring raps by Ice T, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee, plus performances by Tevin Campbell, Joe Zawinul, Bill Summers, and others.