Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part II. THRILLER

“PYT (PRETTY YOUNG THING)”

IN THE CONTEXT OF THE TITANIC SALES OF THRILLER, Quincy Jones’s own artistic journey is often forgotten. Quincy was hardly idle between recording with Michael. In fact, Quincy’s 1981 album, The Dude, sold more than 1 million copies and won five Grammys, including album of the year. The songs on that album reflected his continued development as a pop music producer, while contributing to his track record as a talent scout.

The Dude was anchored by the performance of the deep-voiced James Ingram, who sonically would have been right at home wailing on a Stax single backed by Booker T. and the MGs. But this record was made in 1980, a time when crossover to white audiences drove most creative decisions for black singers. The son of a deacon and the product of a very religious family, Ingram, like any true soul singer, was charmed by secular songs. He played in a funk band called Revelation Funk, on vocals and keyboards, which eventually took him to Los Angeles. There Ingram’s musical skills landed him gigs as a backup vocalist for Ray Charles and session work for Marvin Gaye.

In the musical hot pot of 1970s Los Angeles, Quincy heard about Ingram via his demo for a big ballad called “Just Once,” a tune written by a team of songwriters. After hearing Ingram’s ballad, Quincy cannily chose two Ingram ballad performances to launch both the singer’s career and Quincy’s next studio album, The Dude. “Just Once” was the slow-building saga of a couple trying to keep a fragile union together. Ingram sang the song with restrained emotion, containing his vocals within the melody, so that his soul could be felt even without being fully unleashed. “One Hundred Ways,” penned by veteran songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, has a sweeter quality and a charming hook that reminds me of something Paul McCartney might have written on a good day.

The direction Quincy chose for Ingram—a restrained ballad performance by a natural soul singer—would be a staple of 1980s pop. The ballads Lionel Richie sang and composed for the Commodores in the late 1970s (“Easy,” “Sail On”) laid the groundwork for this strategy. Years before his solo success, Richie had helped the band break through to the pop charts by toning down the funk, writing great melodies, and refining his skills as a color-blind balladeer.

When you look back at Richie’s records in this period, Ingram’s two hits on The Dude, and songs such as Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” and the Manhattans’ “Shining Star,” you can see that they opened up a path for black singers that Richie’s solo work and, later, Whitney Houston would take. As opposed to disco, which had been producer-oriented music that hid the talents of many great singers, Ingram’s ballads put the emphasis on real vocal skill.

The trade-off, however, was that the restrained emotional delivery emphasized the blandness of so much of the material. “Soul music,” in the sense it had been defined in the 1960s, was being relegated to nostalgia. Quincy understood the shift and in Ingram’s work on The Dude found a singer-songwriter able to work on the fine line between emotive mainstream pop and banality. For his work on The Dude, Ingram would be nominated for three Grammys, including best new artist.

Ironically, The Dude would be Quincy’s last album at longtime home A&M Records. At the time of the album’s release, Quincy had already committed to forming his own label, Qwest, financed and distributed by the larger Warner Bros. Given more money and resources, Quincy expanded his production and publishing companies, signing a number of talented writers, including Ingram. On Qwest, Ingram would continue to find success in his role as a velvet-voiced balladeer with songs such as “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and “Baby, Come to Me,” a duet with labelmate Patti Austin that went to number one in 1984 on the heels of being showcased on the soap opera General Hospital.

YET INGRAM’S MOST ENDURING contribution to pop was far removed from the sweet endearments of his hits. “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)” was black barbershop slang for a sexy young woman who was out of puberty but probably under twenty. It was a leering phrase employed by an older man eyeing a girl who (publicly) was just a little too young for him to step to. As a topic for a song, “PYT” was very far removed from “Just Once” and reflected more of Ingram’s personality than his pop ballads did. I interviewed him a couple of times during the early 1980s and found him to be a very thoughtful, sometimes quirky guy—the kind of guy who’d have been getting a haircut and talking with his barber about a cute local girl who had ripened into a beauty.

That image also suggests just how different “PYT” would have sounded if Ingram had recorded it himself. Ingram’s very rich, mature, sometimes raspy voice singing about a “pretty young thing” could have sounded sexy. It also could have sounded like he was an older dude at the club, buying bottles of champagne for nubile lovelies half his age. (This is a scene I’ve seen Quincy Jones live out many times in real life. So for a co-writer, this lyric is more personal than it seems.)

An older guy leering at a young girl is a staple of American music, but even so “PYT” would probably not have been a top-ten pop hit if Ingram had put it on one of his solo albums. Michael’s man-child quality is what really sells the song. His boyishness takes the edge off the leer implicit in the lyric. It also helps to know that the “pretty young things” who sing background on the track are his sisters Janet and LaToya, which gives the song a playfulness and a buoyancy that elevate the proceedings nicely.

Despite composing a driving track that still sounds good at clubs to this day, Ingram never was a consistent maker of dance music. “Yah Mo B There,” a 1984 religiously inspired duet with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald, was as close as Ingram got. He’d be part of another top-ten hit, “Secret Garden,” with other “love men” Barry White, Al B. Sure, and El DeBarge, from Quincy’s last studio album, Back on the Block. But as the 1980s progressed, Ingram never had the hit-making consistency of peers Richie, the great Luther Vandross, or even a less imposing singer such as Freddie Jackson.

When rappers began attacking R&B acts for being too smoothed out and slick, for not being too black or too strong, it was usually singers like Ingram they had in mind. In an attempt to stay relevant, he would, like Jackson, employ new jack swing creator Teddy Riley to produce a single for him. “It’s Real,” in 1989, was a transparent, and not very convincing, attempt to be part of the R&B/hip-hop hybrid that was redefining black music. Ingram continues to perform to this day, his voice a little rougher, but the ballads still sweet.

“PYT” WAS THE SEVENTH, and last, top-ten single from Thriller, and it only peaked at number ten, so it was far from the most popular single from the album during its original sales cycle. But over time, it has actually grown in popularity. The week after Jackson’s death, “PYT” was the ninth most downloaded Michael Jackson song, more than “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Rock with You,” and “Bad,” which were all more successful back in the 1980s.

“PYT” is the most conventional-sounding song on the album. It was added late by Quincy and wasn’t worried over by Michael, as so much of the material seems to have been. Even though Michael brought his personality to bear on the song, it’s not as uniquely his as “Billie Jean” or even “Human Nature,” songs he didn’t write, though it feels as if he did.

Why the durability of “PYT”? Part of it could be exhaustion. The major dance tracks (“Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”) were played so much in the post-Thriller years that “PYT” eventually benefited from its own relative obscurity. If any single off Thriller could still sound fresh on an oldies radio station or at an old-school party, this is the record.