Michael Jackson’s legendary producer, 81, talks Rob Garratt through an incredible six-decade career
Welcome back to the UAE Quincy. I met you last at Atlantis, around the launch of charity single ‘Tomorrow Bokra’ in 2011, and you were here last year for Dubai Music Week. What keeps you coming back to the emirates? We came [to Dubai] straight from Elton [John]’s 67th birthday in [Las] Vegas – I’ve known him since he was 17. It's just amazing how time goes by, man – I knew him, [Paul] McCartney and [Mick] Jagger before they came to America. Paul, John [Lennon] and me bet against the other Beatles, at the Mayfair Hotel, that The Beatles wouldn’t happen in America. Three weeks later 50,000 people met them at the airport [JFK Airport in New York, February 7 1964] and Ringo [Starr] called me from the hotel and said [adopts Liverpudilian accent] ‘alright mate, take me to the Apollo and we haul the bet off’. It was only 100 dollars.
Great story – how do today’s songwriters stand up against those guys? I think it’s gone down – no question about it. Now it’s all about money, and fame. Not everybody man, it’s never everybody.
You’re a man known for spotting talent first – what is it you look for? Blink [clicks fingers]. It’s the first instinct, that’s the best way to go. You’ve got to trust your instincts, man. I’ve always trusted them, and it’s been unbelievable.
When you’re working with talents as diverse and strong as Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, how do you approach your role as a producer? It’s to give them whatever they don’t have – and to pull out what they don’t want to pull out. It takes love. I remember recording Thriller – on ‘The Lady in My Life’ I was like: ‘Michael, I want you to beg on this one.’ He said ‘whaaat?!’ He made me close the curtains because he was ashamed of it, but he did it.
It’s interesting you mention Thriller – we don’t need to tell you it’s the best-selling album ever [with claimed sales of more than 50 million copies]. Could any album ever top that? No. Do we have a record business? Not like that.
As a producer, do you think it’s right that Michael’s leftover demos are being released on a ‘new’ album, Xscape, next month? I don’t think so, but that’s a private, personal move. I couldn’t do that, no. That’s why we went through 800 songs to get nine. It’s all about sequencing.
This is probably impossible, but from your six decades in music, can you pick a greatest memory? Impossible. You can’t compare the experiences – the experiences I had on the road with Sinatra, with Ray Charles as a kid... 14 years old in nightclubs. And with Michael... we never partied, not like that.
Who partied the hardest? Sinatra, Ray Charles... man you can’t mess with those two. Ray Charles is something – I met him when I was 14 and worked with him until I was 17. And I met Frank when I was 30 and it was like walking to another planet, man, we had so much fun. Musically and as human beings.
And who was the better singer? You don’t say that – Ray Charles and Michael and Frank? Get outta here man – they’re all so personal. You can’t compare Ray Charles and Frank. Can you? I can’t. I can’t either man – they’re both good – it’s like two beautiful women. Who are the most promising singers of today? We’ve got some good ones, I like Ludacris, Drake, Mary J Blige, Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars, John Legend... they've got music involved somewhere.
Do you think she can crack America? You can count on it – I wouldn’t mess with her [otherwise]. She can deal with anybody out there today – anybody. And that’s what we [the judges] heard right away – Will.i.am and Timbaland felt the same way. These guys know. Do you have any advice for young singers today? Really? Honestly – take the ten best singers you’ve heard ever – and that’s a very personal choice already – and put them on one CD and sing along. From all eras.
What was the best piece of advice you received? I got a lot of advice – you have to. My biggest fear was always that I’d get an opportunity that I was not prepared to do. When Sinatra called me, imagine how that would feel if I got with him and wasn’t ready, musically? He’d have killed me. To get a big gig and to mess it up – that’s a disaster. I’d shoot myself if it happened.
Did you ever try to overrule someone like Sinatra? I call that jumping without a net – but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about because he’d kill you if you’re wrong. We first worked together in Monte Carlo [in 1958]. I was working for a record company in Paris and we got a message that Grace Kelly had called for Sinatra, and he said ‘can you bring your entire house band to Paris?’ I had a 55-piece house band – Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, Stéphane Grappelli, the best musicians in the world – and we took them down and played with him one night. And six [sic] words [from Sinatra]: ‘Good job kid, cuckoo,’ and that’s it. Four years I didn’t hear from him. And then he called from Hawaii and said ‘Q’ – first time I was ever called that... and two days later I was with him in Hawaii. I worked with him until he died and he left me this ring [shows us Sinatra’s Sicilian gold ring]. And that was one of the highest honours I’ve ever had in my life.
Who did you learn most from? All the good ones – Sinatra, Billy Eckstine and Ray Charles. You don’t call these people up and say: ‘I’d like to work with you’. Mm mm – they have to say, ‘I like what he does, I want him to work with me’.
So why did they all call you? I don’t know – it must have been something I did! [laughs]. They’re not going to call you if they don’t like what you do. And I was very honoured and blessed to have that happen to me. Almost everybody in the history of American music I worked with.
You said ‘almost’ – who do you feel you missed out on working with, that you’d have liked to? Marvin [Gaye] and Stevie [Wonder] – but they said I was too jazzy. Marvin wanted me to work on What’s Going On, and Stevie was [working] right next to me at the Record Plant [in New York] for two years.
You toured the Middle East back in 1956 with Dizzy Gillespie. Everyone makes out he was the sensible one, and Bird [Charlie Parker] was the loose one... Sensible? Dizzy? Get out of here. Dizzy was capable of everything – being rational and smart – but I remember one night we went down to the Village Vanguard... and he almost died. But Bird was all the way.
Could you tell he had problems back then? [Parker died in 1955 aged 34]. He always had problems, man. Always. I used to watch Bird in Charlie’s Tavern [’40s New York musicians hangout], he’d hang over the jukebox and listen to Country and Western – but mainly Stravinsky. They didn’t want to have to dance and sing and entertain people. They wanted to be pure artists.
What about Miles [Davis] – he has a reputation for being, straightforward... [Jones worked with Miles on his final concert and album, 1991's Miles & Quincy: Live at Montreux]. With him and Frank it’s all bark and no bite. There’s one thing that both of them said to me that I’ll never forget for as long as I live – and they don’t even know about each other. Miles was at the house Saturday morning, and said [imitates Davis’ trademark whisper] ‘how’d you like your darn eggs?’, cooking my breakfast, right? And when I first started going with Frank I got locked in Dean Martin’s dressing room [overnight], and he came in on Monday and said [brashly], ‘Hey, Q – how’d you like your eggs?’ Both of them act like that – they pretend to be so tough, but they’re the sweetest. Frank was the sweetest friend you could ever ask for. Miles too.
Elvis Presley – too white? Mmm mm [mimes sealed lips]. Listen man, the people who started rock ’n’ roll were not Bill Hayley and Elvis Presley – it was Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton. I was in the band and I know. It was in the ’40s, not the ’50s. When Elvis came [out] in 1954 and we didn’t look back. It’s not my thing.
If the world was ending in five minutes and you could hear just one song, what would it be? I’d probably choose ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ [recorded with Sinatra in 1984].
Dubai Music Week, which you co-founded, returns on June 1. Tell us it will be bigger, better? Always better. It’s exciting man, this is more exciting than what’s going on everywhere else – here and China make the rest of the world look like it’s the 1800s. There’s so much imagination and vision – vision man.
What the worst thing about your job? The divas. Divas have something in common all over the world. They don’t have to be connected or communicate with each other, they’re just the same. I’ve been working with them since Billie Holiday at 14 years old – I know a diva ten miles away.
And the best? Not having a number two, number six, or number 11 – I like to be number one. You don’t see anybody saying ‘I got a top six record’. And once you get to number one, you don’t ever want to let it go. It’s exciting. I’ve had hits in nearly every decade, six, almost seven decades – and hopefully two more.
So no sign of retirement anytime soon, then? Not even close. You take ‘re’ out of ‘retired’, and what is it? Tired! The Dubai Music Week line-up will be announced on June 1. www.dubaimusicweek.com