What do you do when you’re a rising pop star ‘in between’ two albums? You help out your friends recording next door. That’s what Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, did in the early eighties after he finished Off The Wall (1979) and before he released Thriller (1982). Helping out as a background singer, Jackson’s vocals brightened many a song, ranging from pop to reggae and from funk to country. Here are five tracks from those magical ‘background’ years.
1. Donna Summer – State of Independence (1982)
Donna Summer’s ‘State of Independence’ was a 1982 cover of the original song written by Jon Anderson and Vangelis. It had an all-star choir on backing vocals, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, James Ingram, and others.
Quincy Jones made a private video of the recording session at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles in January 1982. The footage also features Jackson’s recording engineer Bruce Swedien and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes.
Although some critics have called ‘State of Independence’ an overproduced flop, it reached cult hit status in Europe when it was released as a remix in 1996. On top of that, the all-star collaboration laid the foundation for the all-star choir performing ‘We Are The World’, written by Jackson and Ritchie in 1985.
Also interesting is the fact that Jackson’s distinctive bass line for ‘Billie Jean’ closely resembles the bass line with which ‘State of Independence’ opens. As Jackson was working on ‘Billie Jean’ around the same time as doing backing vocals for Summer, this makes for a fascinating comparison.
2. Joe Carrasco – Don’t Let a Woman Make a Fool of You (1982)
In October 1981, a few months before adding his voice to ‘State of Independence’, Jackson spent time in LA’s Studio 55, mixing down The Jacksons Live! Next door, Joe ‘King’ Carrasco and his band were recording their second album Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) which was to be released in 1982.
Over the course of two weeks, the Jackson family and Carrasco got to know each other better, which led to a spontaneous moment of music collaboration. On his blog, Joe Nick Patoski, who managed Carrasco at the time, recalled what happened when the idea was born to ask Jackson as a background singer:
“About a week and a half into the recording session, Joe ‘King’ mused: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Michael Jackson would come in and sing harmonies on ‘Don’t Let A Woman (Make A Fool Out of You)?’ It was a reggae-fied tune Joe had written that sounded more than a little like ‘No Woman, No Cry’. Someone said to Joe: ‘Why don’t you ask him?’ So he did, and Michael said yes.”
The recording of Jackson’s vocals proved to be more than simply satisfying. “So there he was, headphones covering his ears, trying to figure out just who was this Joe ‘King’ character, while he professionally stepped up to a microphone facing Joe, nailing the high harmonies and making Joe sound good. Someone by the mixing board wisecracked that Joe’s vocals should be mixed out of the recording so we could release a dub version of Michael Jackson singing the song.”
Patoski paid Jackson a $100 union scale salary for his contribution to the session. Little did he know that the impromptu background singer doing five-part harmonies was only a year away from dropping ‘Thriller’, the best-selling album of all time.
3. Kenny Rogers – Goin’ Back to Alabama (1981)
In 1981 Lionel Ritchie was producing an album called Share Your Love for country music superstar Kenny Rogers. One day he picked up the phone and called Jackson to ask if he was interested in joining Ritchie as a background singer for one of the tracks on the album.
Jackson readily agreed. Four years later, Ritchie joked to Jet Magazine: “We decided that if we never had another hit record, we could always make $100,000 a year singing background parts.”
In 1987 Jackson met Kenny Rogers again, but in the field of visual arts. Rogers had taken up photography and asked numerous celebrities to pose for his photobook Your Friends and Mine. Jackson participated as well, which resulted in a photo shoot that Rogers remembers well, as he told Rolling Stone Magazine in August 2014:
“I had met him before, he actually sang on a record I did with Lionel. I asked him to do it, and he was so quick to say yes. I said, ‘Michael, I will only keep you 15 minutes. I shoot two color and two black-and-white of everybody, and if we don’t get something you like then I just won’t put it in the book.’ So he came down there and he brought Bubbles with him, and he was there eight hours. He wanted to talk. He didn’t have anybody he could do that with that didn’t need something from him.”
4. Dave Mason – Save Me (1980)
Another cooperation in the early 1980s was with ex-Traffic guitarist Dave Mason, whose album Old Crest on a New Wave (1980) included a track called ‘Save Me’. While recording the song in the studio, Mason and his band discovered they couldn’t reach the high notes. However, help was waiting just around the corner, as Mason told Dick Clark in American Bandstand on September 6, 1980:
“I was in the studio cutting the album and we were doing this one song called ‘Save Me’ and nobody in the band could reach this… a note. So they [the Jacksons, ed.] were in the studio next door and I figured ‘He can sing up high, maybe I’ll go ask Michael if he can… and I said: ‘Hey Michael, would you like to sing on a song on the album?’ And he said: ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ And as it turned out, he’d done a song of mine, ‘Feelin’ Alright’ that I wrote when I was nineteen. He’d done it when he was nine years old with Diana Ross. So the title ‘Old Crest on a New Wave’ seemed to tie in with that moment.”
Despite Jackson’s backing vocals, ‘Save Me’ only became a minor hit in the United States. As a result, Mason’s record company decided to end its contract with the singer, making ‘Save Me’ – rather ironically – Mason’s last chart entry.
5. Brothers Johnson – This Had To Be (1980)
Jackson loved the funk band Brothers Johnson, consisting of Louis and George Johnson. When the band played its greatest hit ‘Stomp’ at Carnegie Hall in 1979, Jackson surprised the brothers by personally introducing them on stage. He then continued to watch the show from the side of the stage.
It wasn’t the last time the three would meet. Louis Johnson, who played bass guitar and was aptly nicknamed ‘Thunder Thumbs’, was invited to play on Jackson’s 1979 album Off The Wall, followed by Thriller in 1983, and ‘Who Is It’ on Jackson’s 1987 album Dangerous.
In 1980 the Brothers Johnson and Jackson briefly joined forces on the Brothers Johnson album Light Up The Night. The album featured ‘This Had To Be’, a track co-written by Jackson and featuring him on background vocals.
Apparently, some parts of the melody had been on Jackson’s mind before. In 2004, a demo called ‘Sunset Driver’ was released as part of Jackson’s Ultimate Collection. Originally written as a track for Jackson’s album Off The Wall (1979), the song features a small melodic part that is identical to ‘This Had To Be’.
© Annemarie Latour