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Quincy Jones: 20 Great Productions

From “It’s My Party” to ‘Thriller’ and beyond, we survey an iconic career

When Quincy Jones, in his famously freewheeling interview with New York magazine earlier this year, was asked to name the greatest musical innovation of his storied career, he answered, “Everything I’ve done.” It’s hard to argue with that. Born in 1933, Jones began as a jazz trumpeter, and he worked his way up to a spot in Dizzy Gillespie’s band while honing his chops as a producer, composer and arranger for everyone from Count Basie to Duke Ellington and Ray Charles. He was even in on the ground floor of rock & roll, conducting and arranging Big Maybelle’s 1955 record “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” two years before Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his hit version of the song. His production work began to take precedence in the early Sixties, when he helmed the first recordings an unknown singer named Lesley Gore, who promptly assumed the status of pop icon; he also began garnering Grammy nominations, eventually taking home 27 of the awards.

In the Sixties, Jones became a prolific soundtrack composer and a recording artist in his own right. A stroke in 1974 nearly ended his life, but he bounced back quickly, engineering the triumphant rise of Michael Jackson to solo megastardom, starting with 1979’s historic Off the Wall. From there, Jones’ groundbreaking mix of studio technology, top-tier songwriting and sculptural arrangements – culminating in Jackson’s Thriller – altered the sonic landscape of the Eighties and beyond. The pop and R&B of the 21st century would be unrecognizable without his influence. Here are 20 of his greatest productions and compositions for other artists.

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Lesley Gore, “It’s My Party” (1963)

Lesley Gore was a typical suburban teenager before her demo tape fell into Jones’ hands. At the time, he was doing A&R and production for Mercury Records, where he had been hired as the first black vice president of a major New York record label. Mostly he’d been working with jazzy singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Nina Simone – but in Gore, he saw the future. “She had a mellow, distinctive voice and sang in tune, which a lot of grownup rock ‘n’ roll singers couldn’t do, so I signed her,” he remembered in Q. The first fruit of that creative union, the upbeat, youthful hit single “It’s My Party,” turned Gore into an overnight star just as the Beatles were jumpstarting youth culture for a momentous new decade. “He heard my demos, Quincy called me up, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” the late Gore said in a live interview with Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis in 2006. “You can’t match a genius like Quincy Jones.”

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Lesley Gore, “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

“You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore’s most famous song, didn’t come to her through Jones. It was the other way around. As she recounted to Anthony DeCurtis, songwriters John Madara and David White played it for her after a gig in the Catskills, after which she “just flipped out. I knew I loved this song. I had them come back to New York in Monday and meet me at Mercury with Quincy and play him the song. And he loved it as much as I did.” Jones’ ear for hits – as well as his rapidly growing ability to convert his jazz and music-theory chops into compelling pop – were instrumental in the rise of “You Don’t Own Me.” The dramatic, orchestral song quickly became not only a smash, but an early feminist anthem. Gore was still years away from identifying as gay, but the resonance of the song’s message of empowerment was instantly universal – as shown by the success of Grace’s cover version in 2015, the year Gore died. As Gore told DeCurtis, “Quincy was a great mentor and a wonderful teacher, but he had a male point of view. He wasn’t coming from a female point of view. So I felt like I was sort of dealing with that issue. Who was I supposed to be out there? ‘You Don’t Own Me’ made a lot of that pretty clear for me.”

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Aretha Franklin, ‘Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)’ (1973)

“I really did enjoy working with Quincy Jones – it was great,” Aretha Franklin told Blues & Soul in 1973, soon after the release of her Jones-produced album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). If she sounded slightly defensive, it’s because the album did not do gangbusters with either critics or fans, at least relatively speaking. Hey Now Hey‘s image has been rehabilitated since then, and rightfully so; while not uniformly as gutsy and gritty as her earlier output for Atlantic Records, it explored a panoply of moods and textures, with the non-album (but Jones-helmed) single “Master of Eyes (the Deepness of Your Eyes)” winning a Grammy. “I wanted to do the things the way I personally dug them, and I hoped the public would dig it a little more than they did,” Franklin continued. “The album was quite successful, but people seem to prefer us to do just funky things or blues tunes, and I wanted to try something a little different on material that I liked myself.” Six years before his mentorship of Michael Jackson, Jones was honing his talent for guiding iconic artists toward self-reinvention.

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The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter #23” (1977)

Jones stumbled across guitarist George Johnson and bassist Louis Johnson when he heard their work an a demo by Taka Boom, sister of Chaka Khan. Loving what he heard, he hired the siblings for his backing band, tapped them for his soundtrack for Roots and produced a stunning funk debut for their group the Brothers Johnson, Look Out for #1, in 1976. But the Brothers didn’t see massive success until 1977 and the release of “Strawberry Letter #23.” Their cover of Shuggie Otis’ slow, sensual 1971 soul song seduced audiences in a year when disco and punk where rattling the world. “We didn’t want to get stuck into one groove, and it would have been easy for us just to have come through with another album which just stuck with the funk,” the siblings told Blues & Soul. “That’s really where Quincy comes in as our producer. We all talked about what the second album should be about, and he pointed out that we had to be aware of what was happening in music in general out there, where it was going.” In that regard, Jones was still just getting started.

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Michael Jackson, ‘Off the Wall’ (1979)

Before Off the Wall, both Jones and Michael Jackson were famous and wealthy artists. But that album propelled them into a radically higher orbit. In 1979, disco was facing a misguided backlash that included mass burnings of records, and Off the Wall proved that the style could be whittled down, shorn of its extravagance and reborn. Jones had first worked with the 19-year-old Jackson on The Wiz, and as he recalled in Q, “beneath [Jackson’s] shy exterior was an artist with a burning desire for perfection and an unlimited ambition to be the biggest entertainer in the world.” He took Jackson, whom he affectionately nicknamed Smelly, under his wing, and he turned his 1979 solo album Off the Wall into the template for post-disco. The disc’s many hits, including “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You,” practically created the sound of the Eighties – and it put Jackson on the path to Thriller. “Quincy Jones produced it and we had a ball,” Jackson said of Off the Wall in an interview with Blues & Soul. “It was the smoothest album I have ever been involved in. There was so much love, it was incredible. Everybody worked together so easily.” That sense of collaborative freedom and joy is abundant in every immortal groove, lick and hook.

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Rufus and Chaka Khan, ‘Masterjam’ (1979)

Hot on the heels of Off the Wall came a less heralded but fully worthy masterpiece, Rufus and Chaka Khan’s Masterjam. The veteran funk troupe allowed Jones to give them a sleek, post-disco update, which dovetailed with Khan’s concurrent emergence as a solo disco star. In Blues & Soul, she approvingly called Jones’s methodology in the studio “this search for perfection,” while keyboardist Kevin Murphy told the same magazine, “Working with Quincy was a beautiful experience for all of us! He’s been truly an angel, and although I had a different concept of what to expect – someone who just wasn’t approachable – turned out to be the complete opposite. He took the ball and just ran with it – he fitted in real well with what we’re all about and we all just sat around and rapped.” As focused and relentlessly visionary as he was in the studio at the time, Jones could make it feel like a party. And that party comes through clearly on the impeccably danceable Masterjam.

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The Brothers Johnson, “Stomp” (1980)

George and Louis Johnson continued working with Jones throughout his huge, late-Seventies bump, with one or both of them contributing to many of his productions of the era, Off the Wall and Masterjam included. But the Brothers Johnson got to shine in the spotlight once more in 1980. Their single “Stomp” stormed the charts that year, striking the ideal balance between disco’s epic sweep and the brave new funk of the Eighties. Amid the song’s infectious calls for end-of-the-workweek ecstasy, George and Louis each take brief but stunning solos on their respective instruments, a reminder of the virtuosity that so impressed Jones the first time he heard them. “Quincy opened our heads up to a lot of things. Now, we listen to all types of music whereas before we might have been more limited,” Jones’ grateful protégés remarked to Blues & Soul. “We look to Quincy because we want to get to where he’s at one day. It’s a very heavy responsibility, but we respect him tremendously.” The Brothers Johnson would never match that success again, but their spot in pop history had already been secured.

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George Benson, ‘Give Me the Night’ (1980)

Like Jones, George Benson crossed over from jazz to pop. After making his name as a guitarist for Brother Jack McDuff and Miles Davis in the Sixties, Benson rode the fusion wave for his breakthrough album, 1976’s Breezin’. Unlike Michael Jackson or the Brothers Johnson, Benson was a fully formed artist before teaming up with Jones for the 1980 album Give Me the Night, which won three Grammys and went platinum, thanks largely to the smooth, groovy title song. As experienced as Benson already was going into Give Me the Night, he still deferred to Jones’s immaculate instincts in the studio. “He sent me the mixes after he’d done them so I could make comments – up to a certain degree,” he told the New Musical Express with a laugh. “Some people call it nitpicking, but the slightest thing … a touch too sweet, or not quite enough sugar. … I lost ‘Love Ballad’ because of that. It’s just too slow. … Melody, performance, won a Grammy, the whole thing … but we lost it! You couldn’t dance to it!”

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Lena Horne, ‘The Lady and Her Music’ (1981)

“Music is really emotional architecture,” Jones said to Rolling Stone in 2017. “The main thing you have to keep in your mind is love, respect and trust.” When it came to Lena Horne, his love, respect and trust went way back. On his 1961 album The Quintessence, Horne and her husband Lennie Clayton wrote the liner notes, even as they championed his entry into Hollywood’s scoring ranks. Jones repaid the favor by titling a song on the album “For Lena and Lenny.” Horne then starred as the Good Witch in 1978’s The Wiz, with Jones as musical director and producer. So when it came time for Horne to record the cast album of her career-spanning Broadway revue Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, naturally Jones produced, lending it his newfound authority as one of the biggest producers in the industry. The album went on to win Best Cast Show Album at the 24th Annual Grammy Awards, a ceremony Jones hosted. “Lena Horne was one of the loves and legends of my life,” he posted on Facebook in 2013, three years after her death. “I will always be the ‘mister’ to you as my loving ‘sister.'”

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Patti Austin, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ (1981)

Patti Austin sang backups on George Benson’s “Give Me the Night,” but Jones was acquainted with her long before that. A child prodigy who first sang on the stage of the Apollo at four years old, she knew Jones since birth, thanks to her father, jazz trombonist Gordon Austin. Jones, in fact, is her godfather – and that family connection inevitably grew into a collaboration. Austin, with a respectable career already under her belt at the age of 31, worked with Jones on her 1981 album Every Home Should Have One. Jones’s Midas touch held true, with the album’s velvety duet between Austin and James Ingram, “Baby Come to Me,” becoming a Number One single in 1982. Speaking to BlackAmericaWeb.com about her mentor, she called the music business “QU – Quincy University!” Not only did Jones produce Every Home Should Have One, he released it on his label Qwest Records – which also served as the home of everyone from Benson to Sinatra and New Order.

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Donna Summer, ‘Donna Summer’ (1982)

“As a matter of fact, Quincy produced that album with almost no help from me – which is unlike me, but at the time I was pregnant, so it’s really more his album.” So said Donna Summer to New Musical Express, talking about her self-titled album from 1982. Summer, the undisputed Queen of Disco, desperately needed a musical makeover in the disco-is-dead era of the early Eighties. No one was more qualified than Jones, so he took the reins of Donna Summer and helped the singer deliver a clean break from her Giorgio Moroder–produced albums up to that point. It wasn’t the comeback she’d hoped, but it featured several excellent songs, including the Grammy-nominated single “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” and a cover of Jon and Vangelis’ reggae-accented “State of Independence.” The latter also boasted backing vocals by an all-star cast that included Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins and Stevie Wonder. When asked by NME if she used her own star power to collect that formidable choir, Summer said, “Um. No, Quincy did. When Quincy calls, people drop what they’re doing.” That’s a superpower Jones would put to the test three years later when assembling the biggest celebrity team-up of all time, USA for Africa.

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Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’ (1982)

Thriller is an epic, and accordingly, it was exhausting. “When we were finishing ‘Beat It,’ we had three studios going,” Jones told Rolling Stone. “We had Eddie Van Halen in one; Michael was in another, singing a part through a cardboard tube; and we were mixing in another. We were working five nights and five days, with no sleep. And at one point, the speakers overloaded and caught on fire!” Similarly, Thriller caught fire upon its release in 1982, becoming Jackson’s greatest work and a cultural phenomenon. Everything Jones and Jackson had learned about production, arranging, composition, public taste and the music business throughout their respective careers came into exquisite focus: genres were mashed, barriers were crossed, and Jackson was reborn as the King of Pop. Aided by Jones and his longtime songwriting partner Rod Temperton, Jackson hacked pop’s DNA, resulting in a record that still, and likely always will, sound fresh and electrifying. It wasn’t all sunshine and smiles, though: In his recent interview with Vulture, Jones said, “I hate to get into this publicly, but Michael stole a lot of stuff. He stole a lot of songs,” citing the similarity between the bass lines of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Donna Summer’s “State of Independence,” produced by Jones and also released in 1982. “The notes don’t lie, man,” Jones continued. “He was as Machiavellian as they come.” On the other hand, Jones asserted that his own intentions were entirely artistic: “I have never in my life made music for money or fame. Not even Thriller. No way. God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money.” Nonetheless, it became and remains the bestselling album of all time.

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James Ingram, ‘It’s Your Night’ (1983)

One of Thriller‘s most charismatic singles was “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” and it was co-written by a relative unknown named James Ingram. Jones fans knew Ingram from the producer’s 1981 solo album The Dude, on which Ingram contributed lead vocals to songs such as the Grammy-nominated “One Hundred Ways.” Ingram’s vocals were the perfect instrument for Jones: unobtrusive, easygoing and able to communicate emotion simply and directly. As a testament to Ingram’s winning humbleness, the singer recounted to the Chicago Tribune what happened when he – who had previously made his living as a jazz keyboardist – first heard from Jones about the possibility of working together: “I hung up on Quincy. I was never no singer. I never shopped a deal, none of that. My wife said, ‘James, that was Quincy.’ He called back, and we started talking.” Following the success of The Dude, Jones signed on to produce Ingram’s debut album, It’s Your Night. Released in 1983, the record contained “Yah Mo B There,” a Grammy-winning duet with Michael McDonald that beautifully showcased Jones’ silky R&B side.

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Frank Sinatra, ‘L.A. Is My Lady’ (1984)

Jones first met Sinatra in 1958 when the up-and-comer was tapped to gather an orchestra to back the Chairmen for a concert in Monaco. The two didn’t become fast friends right away, but by the early Sixties, Jones was offered a couple producing and arranging gigs for Sinatra recordings, and he’d even begun to hang out with the Rat Pack. As Jones told Vulture: “1964, when I was in Vegas, there were places I wasn’t supposed to go because I was black, but Frank fixed that for me. It takes individual efforts like that to change things. It takes white people to say to other white people, ‘Do you really want to live as a racist? Is that really what you believe?'” Jones renewed his bond with Sinatra in 1984 by producing L.A. Is My Lady. It ended up being Sinatra’s final solo album, and a fitting one at that: relaxed, genial and immaculately arranged, the record features Sinatra’s studio rendition of “Mack the Knife,” in which he namechecks his old comrade Jones.

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USA for Africa, “We Are the World” (1985)

“I had to put the sign on the door that said, ‘Check your egos at the door,'” wrote Jones in Q. He was reminiscing about the recording session that resulted in USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” the celebrity-stuffed 1985 single created to benefit those suffering from famines in Africa. Jones was tapped to produce the project, and the tune was penned by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson – after which everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tina Turner, Willie Nelson and Dan Aykroyd was bought in to sing. The song itself wound up typifying the quasi-inspirational, songwriting-by-committee benefit single in all its bland glory. Jones, however, pulled off a Herculean feat of cat-herding, and the fact that the song is coherent, let alone catchy, speaks to his skills not only behind the mixing board, but as a wrangler of divas. “If cornered, any one of them would take your skin off layer by layer,” he quipped in Q, but he also admitted that in the effort to aid a truly goodhearted cause, “I have never before or since experienced the joy I felt that night working with this rich, complex human tapestry of love, talent, and grace.”

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Michael Jackson, ‘Bad’ (1987)

Bad was Michael Jackson’s long-awaited follow-up to Thriller, and as such, the expectations were astronomical. Luckily, it delivered. Bad saw Jackson tapping more deeply into his own psyche and drawing from his own life and experiences more than ever before – not to mention co-producing the album with Jones. That said, Jones took credit for it. “All the turmoil [in Jackson’s life] was starting to mount up, so I said I thought it was time for him to do a very honest album writing all the songs. I suggested that for Bad,” he told Rolling Stone. Whatever the impetus, the album was a far more personal expression of Jackson’s increasingly troubled and introspective state of mind during the whirlwind post-Thriller years. From the sparkling romanticism of “The Way You Make Me Feel” to the soul-searching balladry of “Man in the Mirror,” Bad is a compelling chronicle of the collaboration between Jackson and Jones, two titans who together altered the way pop music looked, sounded and felt. It would also be their final partnership – but what a way to go out.

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Tevin Campbell, “Strawberry Letter #23” (1991)

Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” was a huge smash in early 1991, thanks largely to a prominent sample of the Jones-produced “Strawberry Letter #23.” That may have had something to do with Jones’ decision to have his newest protégé, teenage heartthrob and R&B singer Tevin Campbell, cover “Strawberry Letter #23” on his debut album, T.E.V.I.N., released at the end of 1991. While still only 12, Campbell made his first big splash as a featured vocalist on Jones’s 1989 album Back on the Block. Spotting the seeds of another Michael Jackson, Jones set about ushering Campbell into the ranks of pop royalty – and succeeded, with T.E.V.I.N. going platinum and catapulting him into stardom. Jones, whose production work for other artists had begun to slow down following Bad, wasn’t as hands-on with T.E.V.I.N. as he had been with his previous charges, from Lesley Gore and the Brothers Johnson to Patti Austin and James Ingram. Instead, he served as executive producer on T.E.V.I.N. – although he did step in to personally produce Campbell’s new jack swing–injected “Strawberry Letter #23.” While not a major entry in Jones’s production discography, Campbell’s rendition of the song completed a circuit in Jones’ career and reiterated his position as one of pop’s most innovative hitmakers, as well as one of its most generous mentors. Or as grateful Campbell summed up in a 1991 interview with Video Soul, “If there was one word to describe Quincy, it’d be ‘genius.'”

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