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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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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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