Steven Ivory On Living Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’

Steven Ivory: Living Michael Jackson's  'Off The Wall'
“You’re not gonna believe it—Michael’s got a little platform that he dances on, right there in the studio.    He’s doing all kind of moves while he’s recording his vocals!”
That was the first thing photographer Bobby Holland, my roommate at the time, told me when he returned to our mid-city Los Angeles apartment one evening in 1978 after spending some time at Allen Zentz Recording, a nondescript  studio in Hollywood, where Michael Jackson was recording the Epic/CBS solo album with producer Quincy Jones that would become the iconic Off The Wall.
Holland was hired by our friend Ed Eckstein, who then ran Quincy Jones Productions, to shoot casual, not-posed photos of Jackson and Jones working in the recording studio, for publicity purposes.
You read correctly—publicity. Back then, Michael and Quincy, while accomplished and famous, weren’t cultural icons. In fact, both were at stations in their careers where they had something to prove. Entering his twenties,  Michael wanted to create an album that reflected who he’d become musically.
Quincy, while renown as a bandleader, award-winning arranger, producer, composer and soundtrack scorer, was looking to solidify  his reputation as a mainstream producer.  Yes, he’d produced his first hit single  in 1963 with Lesley Gore’s pop classic, “It’s My Party” and in the ‘70s produced hits by Aretha Franklin, the Brothers Johnson, Rufus & Chaka Khan, as well as his own albums. But in the ’70s he wanted to be seen as a certified hit maker.
Executives at CBS Records (which later became Sony) respected Quincy—everyone respected Quincy–but didn’t see him as the man to produce Michael Jackson.  Not that they viewed Michael as invaluable; at that time, he was just another artist.
But to produce Michael they preferred someone like Maurice White–founder/producer of the label’s biggest black band, Earth, Wind & Fire–who’d also had success producing Deniece Williams, keyboardist Ramsey Lewis and the Emotions.
Even the Jacksons had ideas about who  should produce Michael’s  solo album.  They felt they should do it, and  told Michael as much in front of me one afternoon in September 1977.
Jackie, Tito, Marlon and Randy and I were  sitting on a leather sectional in the den of the family’s original ranch style Encino home on Hayvenhurst (before Michael had it demolished and built the new mock tudor mansion) while  a Sanyo Ghetto Blaster on the coffee table  blared instrumental tracks–no lead or background vocals yet–from Destiny, the first album, save the track “Blame It On The Boogie,” that they’d been allowed to write and produce themselves.
Michael was sitting on a wooden chair across from us, making the occasional rhythmic movement to the music.  It was something to behold–Michael Jackson dancing in his seat–but I did so through my peripheral vision, for fear that if I simply looked, he’d become self-conscious and stop.
“We been waiting to produce our own stuff for a long time, man,” Jackie  proudly said,  when the cassette ended. “After this album, Michael’s doing a solo record.  He’s  talking to different people, but he’s thinking about keeping it in the family and letting us produce HIS album, too.   Right Mike?”
Michael looked away, as if he didn’t really hear it, his silence speaking volumes.
In any case, it was through Holland, Eckstein and Quincy Jones himself that I was unwittingly afforded a front row seat to the creation of what arguably ended up the most important album of Michael Jackson’s solo career. When Bobby returned to our apartment that evening from the studio, I grilled him for details.
“Well, he was laidback and quiet about everything but the music,” Bobby said of Michael, while reaching into the fridge for a beer. “Quincy did have him laughing at some of that shit he says—you know how Quincy is, always telling stories—but it was when the music started that Mike turned into a tiger.   While  singing,  he’d actually be doing a lot of the shit he does on stage,  like a mini-concert.  It was a trip.”
Some days there wouldn’t be enough light in the room for Bobby to take photos–when Michael was behind the mic singing, the singer insisted the studio be dark. “The only lights in the room,” said Bobby, “were on the recording console and the light on the music stand with the lyrics on a piece of paper in front of Michael.”
It was a no-frills operation. No limos, no elaborate security detail, no chef-catered gourmet meals. Quincy doesn’t drive, so at about noon he would arrive at the studio driven by a man behind the wheel of Quincy’s car, “a regular ol’ Buick.”
A Buick, Bobby? You sure?
“Hey, my daddy was a Buick man. I know a Buick when I see it. It was a Buick.”
According to Bobby, Quincy carried a briefcase that, when Quincy opened it, contained music charts and…a bottle of hot sauce. They’d order lunch and dinner from menus of places nearby, but Q had to have his own hot sauce.
Michael would arrive shortly afterward, someone driving him, too. “Not Bill Bray, though (the longtime Jackson family security man),” said Bobby. “Some other guy.”
One day Michael showed up dressed like actor Charlie Chaplin. “From head to toe,” Bobby said. “Make-up; the whole nine.  And he worked like that.  Nobody made a big deal of it.  Imagine  Charlie Chaplin jammin’ to ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.’”
Some days, there’d be musicians, but often it would be just Michael, Quincy, Quincy’s longtime engineer Bruce Swedien and, as Bobby told me one evening after returning from the studio, “this white guy named Rod Temperton.”
I’d heard of him.  A lanky, quiet chap from England who was a member of Heatwave, the monstrous interracial R&B band wearing out the top acts they opened for on the road and burning up the charts with hits like “Boogie Nights,” “The Groove Line” and the ballad, “Always and Forever.”
Temperton was a phenom—a square-looking white boy who looked as if he should have been selling insurance policies–with a simply ridiculous command of R&B grooves and a penchant for lyrics that somehow always included  “hot” and “street.”
One afternoon, maybe a year before he started working with Temperton, I was hanging out at Quincy Jones’ office on the A&M Records lot with   Eckstein, when Quincy, sitting behind his desk, turned serious and, asked, “Ivory, what do you think of Rod Temperton? Would the songs he writes for Heatwave translate to other artists in general?” Quincy Jones is asking my musical opinion.
“Hmmmm,” I said, thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Q. Those songs work well with that band, but…I just don’t know.”
Quincy looked at me and shook his head, as if to say, ”You’re probably right.” Obviously,  the man was indulging me. Even as he asked the question, he’d already locked up Temperton in a contract.
If Michael and Quincy had something to prove with this production, without a prior collaborative success breathing down their backs, they also had the luxury of making an earnest record. Unlike later Jackson releases, Off The Wall featured no gimmicks—no rock songs meticulously designed to appeal to a demographic that wouldn’t normally listen to Jackson’s music; no star musician cameos recruited purely for show.
Rufus (as in Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan) basically served as the production’s studio band.   Before Rufus’ Quincy-produced Masterjam album and Off The Wall,    Rufus’ new drummer, John “JR” Robinson, hastily recruited by the band while in the midst of a tour, had never even played on a major recording session.
Singer Patti Austin was a superb duet partner for Michael during “It’s The Falling In Love,” but if that song had appeared on Thriller, chances are a bigger name would have been hired for marquee value.
During the album’s production, some evenings Eckstein would come by our apartment with a cassette of rough tracks from a week’s worth of sessions and we’d light up a joint and listen.   I was taken aback. Temperton’s mighty “Burn This Disco Out” was my immediate favorite. It was a big, aggressive, glossy groove that, vocally, Michael ate alive.
It was intriguing  to hear things to which the world wouldn’t be privy—like Michael’s voice cracking during the Stevie Wonder song, “I can’t help it,” as he struggled to move into an even higher falsetto register than he was already in during his ad-libs at the end of the song. Who knew Mike was anything but perfect?
When Off The Wall was released in August of 1979, Bobby and I might have been as excited as Michael. All the insight we’d gleaned into its production  made its success feel personal.   It was an immediate smash, ultimately selling some   six million copies. (Since its release the album has sold some 20 million copies globally.)
Despite its triumph,  that the album only won a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for its first single, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” so upset Michael  that after the ceremony, Quincy said Michael was limoed home, where he  “cried himself to sleep.”
Reportedly, Michael told CBS Records CEO Walter Yetnikoff that he felt Off The Wall should have won Record Of The Year. Meanwhile, Yetnikoff  was said to have told label execs that while Off The Wall’s sales were a welcome windfall, Michael’s insistence that his follow-up album would be even bigger was but an artist’s fantasy.
Of course, we all know how that worked out.
steve ivory (2014)


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