Behind the Curtain: ‘Off the Wall’ with Quincy Jones

Behind the Curtain: ‘Off the Wall’ with Quincy Jones

A long, long time ago when I was just a little kid rocker, my dad used to play catch with me in our backyard. He loved baseball and knew everything about it and he passed that passion along to me. We’d spend hours tossing a baseball back and forth, back and forth. There was an ivy hedge that acted as a sort of wall between our house and the people next door and if I hadn’t known better, I’d swear that overgrown mass was home to a gaping mouth with teeth the size of a Great White’s since there couldn’t have been any other explanation for the dozens and dozens of balls that simply disappeared inside this monstrous growth of vegetation.

Either that or my backyard was home to a hole in the universe where baseballs went to die.

My dad would stand at one end of the backyard a few feet in front of this vicious vine and I’d stand at the other end. My father wanted me to be a pitcher so he was teaching me how to throw harder and faster. I began really zipping some balls in there but many of them were thrown wide or hit the ground in front of him and ended up in the ivy and that’s when the nightmare began.

I’d usually walk across the yard and get down on my hands and knees and start looking for the balls inside this jungle of ivy. It was a strange thing. I’d thrown dozens of balls in there and we only ever found one or two. The rest just disappeared, vanished, as if they’d been sucked into some alternate universe where hardballs probably dotted the sky like stars and some huge baseball with bug eyes and tentacles ruled the planet like the alien manager of some interstellar baseball team.

You’re probably wondering, “Why is he telling me all of this? What does this have to do with a story about Quincy Jones?” and I would tell you, “Well, that’s a good question and this all fits in—sort of—so please be patient.”

Many years later, maybe 15 or more, I was playing softball with some friends. My dad had instilled a love of the game in me and I continued to play ball in various forms. When I was still just a kid, I played in Little League and became an All Star pitcher on a team managed by my father. I played softball in a Hollywood Rock and Roll league with people like Joan Jett, Henry Winkler and other actors like Michael Madsen [Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill] and Martin Kove [The Karate Kid].

On one particular night in 1981, I was playing in a pickup game with some friends from high school. I was playing left field when a line drive was hit over third base. I ran over to intercept the ball when my feet slipped out from beneath me. The grass had grown a bit dewy in the night air—we were playing under lights—and as if I’d slipped on ice, my entire body went flying up into the air and I ended up landing on my left shoulder and dislocating it. My friend drove me to the local emergency room where my shoulder was set and my arm placed in a sling.

Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com
Photo by: Glen LaFerman www.glenlaferman.com

All that as preamble to my interview with the great Quincy Jones somewhere around March or April of that same year. Several weeks after The Great Fall, I was contacted about an interview with Mr. Jones. Of course I wanted to meet and talk with him. Who wouldn’t? Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall had been released about two years earlier and Quincy’s production work on that album was astonishing. But the more I thought about the interview and actually sitting down with the producer, the more trepidation I had. And here’s where the baseball anecdote finally ties in [well, sort of]: I’d be sitting down with Mr. Jones with a sling on my arm and not that there was anything wrong with that of course. Lots of people had slings or casts on their arms. I  just felt funny about it. Slipping on the grass while trying to make a play on a line drive in a softball game? It didn’t quite rate with a war wound or saving someone from a burning building.

On top of that, there was Quincy himself. He was one bad, multi-talented individual. When he was only 14 years old, he was already hanging out with Ray Charles. Attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he left early to hit the road playing trumpet for Lionel Hampton. While touring with the jazz vibraphonist, Jones displayed an ungodly talent for arranging and was hired by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, and Ray Charles, who had by then become a close friend. Ultimately, he would go on to tour with Dizzy Gillespie, begin his own solo career in 1957, become the vice-president of Mercury Records, and compose music for 33 major motion pictures.

Jones accomplished all of the above while still in his early 30s. Subsequently, he would become an arranger for everybody from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, produce four million-selling singles for Lesley Gore [including “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “She’s a Fool” and “You Don’t Own Me], and by 1975 had founded his own Qwest Productions. There he would produce the soundtrack for The Wiz, the musical version of The Wizard of Oz, the project where he was first introduced to Michael Jackson.

I’m skipping over huge chunks of his history but by the time I met Quincy in 1981, his accomplishments were still daunting. I didn’t know what kind of man I’d meet on that sunny afternoon when I first walked into the offices of Qwest. I identified myself to the secretary at the main desk and told her I had an interview scheduled. She looked on her list and nodded. She guided me to a closed door, knocked gently one time and escorted me in. The man himself rose from his desk, walked across the room and greeted me like a long-lost friend. Dressed casually in a red and black long sleeve pullover shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he walked over to me and put out his hand to shake mine. As he clasped my hand, he asked, “What happened?” I told him I had slipped and dislocated my shoulder while playing softball and even as the words were coming out of my mouth I thought, “That sounds really dumb. Who does that?”

In the end, Quincy did chuckle softly. But he did so in the gentlest and most caring fashion and when I looked in his eyes, I could see real concern there. “Oh, man. That must have hurt. I hope you’re OK.”

That was the kind of man I met that day and as the interview went on, I fell under his spell more and more. There was always this beatific kind of smile on his face, which generated an aura of serenity and calmness.

I’m not trying to say Quincy Jones was any kind of guru or enlightened monk who had lived in a cave for 50 years and had unraveled the mysteries of life but in a way I am.

Quincy had experienced an extraordinary life up until that moment I met him and though he had worked as hard as anyone ever could on reaching his goals and was blessed with an inordinate amount of natural talent, there was something else there. Nobody in this world could have reached the pinnacles of success he’d realized without possessing something extra special like some rare chromosome or having some exotic blood type coursing through his veins.

As we began our conversation, I thought I felt the throbbing in my shoulder diminish. I was probably only imagining it but nonetheless it felt better. I almost thought there might have been some kind of special oxygen being pumped in through the air vents, some secret element that heightened your senses and made you feel better and smarter. But I knew there was nothing flowing through the air conditioning ducts but regular O².

No, it was Quincy making me feel that way. It was Quincy in his soft-spoken voice and generous smile and utter lack of ego. He was a Zen master, a disciple of the music industry who knew all the ins and outs, all the dirty little secrets, and understood on a very high level how to navigate around the pitfalls and perils inherent in the business.

We talked about Michael Jackson and in that moment I saw clearly why the singer had chosen Quincy to be his co-producer. Jones was all the things Jackson didn’t have in his own life at the time—a stable family and more specifically a caring father, someone he could rely on musically, and another human being he could trust to tell him the truth and point him in the right direction—and Michael needed him as much for his technical input as he did for his emotional insights. Or at least that’s what I thought.

Quincy knew how to deal with the King of Pop’s quirks and peccadilloes. It required someone with infinite patience, understanding, sense of humor and utter lack of ego.  His work on the Off the Wall album recorded back in 1979 was a total game changer for the singer. It transformed Jackson from a successful singer into a true superstar and much of that acclaim surely was due to Jones’ input. But there was no attitude, arrogance or haughtiness in what Quincy was saying and in fact his humility was staggering.

“We went in there to get serious,” Quincy said about the album. “I think every time you go in, it’s real serious, man. It’s easy to talk about all the records that worked but I’ve been in the studio for 30 years and I have made a lot of bombs. So it kills me about all this overnight success. I’ve made a lot of bombs so I think you have got to gain from experience and you should get better from your mistakes and I’ve had a chance to make more mistakes than a lot of people.”

Instead of relating how great the album was or how hard he had worked, Quincy Jones revealed that he made a lot of mistakes. Off the Wall was the first album in history to contain four singles reaching the Top 10 but instead of talking about that, Jones talked about all the bombs he’d made. How remarkable is that? How many people would talk about their failures in light of one of the most successful records of all time?

As our conversation wound down and I began packing up my things—cassette player, notes—I stole a glance or two at Quincy who had been sitting behind his desk. I wanted to see if he made a phone call or started looking through the folders on his desk before I was out of his office. I wanted to see if would return to his work mode while I was still there but he didn’t. He waited patiently while I put everything away and rose to leave. He had given me his undivided attention and for that hour I spent in his company, I had been the sole recipient of his attention. That’s why Quincy Jones was so special because he made you feel special.

As I was walking out the door, Quincy said, “When your shoulder heals, we should play catch.” He didn’t really say that but after spending time with him, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had.

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