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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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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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