Someone once said: “A duet is like a railroad car: it is indivisible and runs on parallel tracks.” Michael Jackson rode his railroad cars with titans of music such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. But the King of Pop’s music archive also contains duets that are hardly known – if known at all. The following five are worth your time.
1. All In Your Name | with Barry Gibb
All In Your Name is released as a duet by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees in 2011. The song is recorded nine years earlier, after Jackson has finished his Invincible album and the Bee Gees have taken a break as a band. Jackson and Gibb work on their duet in the Middle Ear Studios in Miami, the musical home of the Bee Gees. But despite many hours of dedicated work, the song remains unfinished.
On June 25, 2011, exactly two years after Jackson’s premature death, Gibb releases the duet as a tribute to his long-time friendship with Jackson: “Michael and I were the dearest of friends, that’s simply what it was. We gravitated towards the same kind of music and we loved collaborating and he was the easiest person to write with,” Gibb wrote on his website at the time.
Jackson was not just any friend of Gibb. He was the godfather of Gibbs’ eldest son, who shares his first name with Jackson. As Jackson and Gibb spent more time together, the idea popped up to record a duet: “The more we got to know each other, the more those ideas entwined and it all came to this song All In Your Name. All in Your Name is in fact the message that Michael wanted to send out to all of his fans all over the world, that he did it all for them and for the pure love of music,” Gibb said when the song was released.
The duet has a haunting, spiritual quality. The verses of the ballad are sung by Gibb, while Jackson tackles the chorus and background vocals, using his highest voice register. It is reminiscent of the heyday of the Bee Gees, when the Gibb brothers sang their greatest hits in falsetto.
Gibbs’ son Ashley documented Jackson’s and Gibb’s informal studio sessions. Video footage of the song being discussed and recorded offers a rare glimpse into Jackson’s creative process in the studio. It shows Jackson in his element, dedicating himself to his craft.
2. Just Friends | with Carole Bayer Sager
In Just Friends Jackson collaborates with singer-songwriter and Oscar winner Carole Bayer Sager. They start working together on Jackson’s first adult solo album Off The Wall (1979). For this album, Bayer Sager writes It’s The Falling In Love, a duet that Jackson records with R&B-singer Patti Austen.
Jackson also records a duet with Bayer Sager herself. The song is written by her husband Burt Bacharach. “There was a duet on the album called Just Friends, and Michael Jackson came in to sing it with Carole. I had written the arrangement and we had the strings and the rhythm section there when Michael said, ‘Can you just give me a few minutes so I can try something?’ He took Paul Jackson Jr., who played guitar on the date, into the bathroom and came back out with a totally different flow and concept for the song that was five times better than what I had done,” Bacharach recalls in his autobiography Anyone Who Had A Heart.
Just Friends is released on Bayer Sager’s solo album Sometimes Late At Night in 1981. In the dreamy duet, Bayer Sager’s quirky voice matches remarkably well with Jackson’s boyish and carefree tenor. His “la la dee dah dah” background vocals add a touch of innocence to the song, while two melodic clarinet solos function as an intro and outro, creating an atmosphere of simple beauty.
Twenty years later, Jackson would team up with Bayer Sager again. In 2001, Jackson spent time in Bayer Sager’s private home studio to work on his laborious Invincible album. Slowly but surely, Jackson managed to complete his long-awaited project. In gratitude he dedicated the album to her. “To Carole Bayer Sager. Without you this album could not have been possible. We truly love you from the bottom of our hearts,” Jackson and producer Rodney Jerkins wrote on the first page of the album booklet.
Three songs that bear Bayer Sager’s signature as a co-writer in Jackson’s later career are: You Are My Life, which became part of the 2001 Invincible album, We’ve Had Enough, a hidden gem which was released on Jackson’s 2004 Ultimate Collection, and I Have This Dream, which was never officially released, although an instrumental version appeared online in 2006.
3. There Must Be More To Life Than This | with Freddie Mercury
In 1982, before the release of Thriller, Jackson spends time in the studio with Freddie Mercury of Queen. The two have been friends for some time and decide to record three songs together: There Must Be More To Life Than This, Victory, and State Of Shock.
The five-hour recording session with Mercury takes place in Jackson’s home studio in Encino, LA. Jackson and Mercury get along well, but when Jackson brings his pet llama Louie into the studio, Mercury calls his manager Jim ‘Miami’ Beach in despair: “Miami, dear, can you get on over here because you gotta get me out of the studio… I’m recording with a llama. I’ve had enough and I wanna get out,” Beach recalls in the documentary Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender.
Despite Louie the llama, Jackson and Mercury manage to record a first demo of the song. Yet both stars lack the time to finish the song as a duet. Instead, Mercury – who wrote the song – releases it as a solo version on his album Mr. Bad Guy in 1985. This decision, however, is not made without regrets. “I think one of the songs would be have been on the Thriller album if I had finished it. But I missed out, ”Mercury tells in Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender.
When Mercury – sadly – dies of AIDS in 1991, his duet with Jackson becomes locked up in the Queen music archives. It is not until Jackson’s death in 2009 that Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor ask Jackson’s Estate for permission to officially release the song as a duet. When May and Taylor receive the Estate’s green light, they set out to work with the help of producer William Orbit.
Orbit later remembers his first reaction upon hearing the duet: “When I first played it in my studio, I opened a trove of delights provided by the greatest of musicians. Hearing Michael Jackson’s vocals was stirring. So vivid, so cool, and poignant, it was like he was in the studio singing live. With Freddie’s vocal solo on the mixing desk, my appreciation for his gift was taken to an even higher level.”
There Must Be More To Life Than This is released as a double posthumous duet on the compilation album Queen Forever in 2014. The song is put together like a puzzle, combining the vocals of Jackson’s early demo with those of Mercury’s later solo version. Fused with a backing track recorded by Queen in 1984, the result is a powerful duet of two completely different voices and personalities.
In 2014, the acclaimed photographer and music video director David LaChapelle created a video to accompany the song. The video, starring Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, carries a strong anti-war message, which makes the final collaboration of Jackson and Queen all the more meaningful.
4. (I Can’t Make It) Another Day | with Lenny Kravitz
(I Can’t Make It) Another Day, written and produced by Lenny Kravitz, proves once more that Jackson’s music style was eclectic. This classic rock song was recorded at Marvin’s Room Studio in Los Angeles in 1999, in view of Jackson’s Invincible album. Although the demo had potential, the song didn’t make it onto the album’s final tracklist.
Despite this fact, Kravitz considered his time with Jackson in the studio as a highlight in his career. In an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN in 2011, Kravitz said: “Producing Michael Jackson, that was something extraordinary… Here I am in the studio and I’ve written a song for Michael. And he is standing there and telling me to be very hard on him: ‘I want to do this exactly the way you see it, so stop me every time it’s not the way you want it.’ And we’re just getting into it, we’re working together, and we end up spending a week together in the studio. It was just unbelievable.”
Equally astonishing is the fact that their collaboration remains hidden for a decade. But six months after Jackson’s death, a fragment of the original demo leaks on the internet. Kravitz is surprised but confirms in a filmed statement that the song is the genuine article: “This song was recorded by Michael and myself. I produced it for him, I wrote the song and I played all the instruments on this track. It was one of the most amazing musical experiences that I’ve ever had. It was done by two people who had respect for each other and who love music.”
Eventually Kravitz completes the track in the context of Jackson’s first posthumous album Michael. The result is a rock song in which Jackson alternates restrained, melodic verses with an explosive and raw chorus. Kravitz sings along in staccato while driving the song on with his guitar and a relentless R&B beat on snare drum.
5. I’m In Love Again | with Minnie Riperton
Soul singer Minnie Riperton is best-known for her timeless love song Lovin’ You in which she effortlessly demonstrates her vocal range of five octaves. Her career ends prematurely, however, when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Losing the battle, she dies in the arms of Richard Rudolph, her husband and music producer, in 1979.
One year later, Rudolph decides to produce a posthumous album to honour his wife. Using new materials recorded by Riperton before her death, Rudolph sets out to rearrange and supplement her vocals with recordings by singers and musicians whom she admired or who match her repertoire.
Jackson – a rising adult star with his Off The Wall album – is also contacted for the project. Having become friendly with Riperton in the social scene of Beverly Hills, Jackson agrees to record a posthumous duet. Producer Quincy Jones teams up as well, describing the project as “keeping the bridge but moving the water.”
I’m In Love Again is a lounge-like ballad bringing out the suppleness of Riperton’s as well as Jackson’s voice. Being nearly impossible to distinguish from each other, Jackson’s sensitive vocals are a perfect match to Riperton’s flawless notes. To top it all off, their voices alternate with the relaxed sounds of jazz flutist Hubert Laws.
All artists who were involved in the project wrote something about Riperton on the back of her posthumous album cover. Jackson simply stated: “She was phenomenal… she did things with her voice that were incredible.”
The album title Love Lives Forever forms a heartfelt tribute to Riperton’s legacy. But it also reverberates in Jackson’s own life. ‘Love Lives Forever’ are the final three words that conclude his posthumous concert documentary This Is It. A remarkable coincidence in the lives of two people whose musical legacies continue to shine.
© Annemarie Latour