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

Part II. THRILLER

“LADY IN MY LIFE”

IT IS OCTOBER 30, 2009, DEVIL’S NIGHT IN IN CANADA. In tribute to Michael Jackson, a party and a cut-for-cut performance of Thriller are held at the Great Hall in Toronto. Neo-soul singer Ivana Santilli, who’s been asked by the promoters to sing “Lady in My Life,” suddenly finds herself humping a microphone stand while performing. “I had no idea that would happen,” she recalls a few weeks later. “But that song—it requires a lot of passion.”

Ivana, of Toronto’s surprisingly busy R&B scene and a fixture since her stellar 1999 debut, Brown, had been immediately intimidated at the thought of singing “Lady in My Life.” “That song requires you to have really good pitch,” she says. “Rod Temperton was able to have lots of chord changes while keeping the melody strong. The opening lyric, ‘There’ll be no darkness tonight, / lady our love will shine’ is the only time that melody appears in the song. It never comes back. Instead there are two other melody lines.” The second and third verses have the same ethereal melody, while the bridge has a very different, funkier vibe, as does the tag where Michael improvises on that funky vamp.

Somewhere in the last third of the song, where Michael sings, “Stay with me / I want you to stay with me” and begins to riff, Santilli ends up singing and writhing on the floor. Laughing over the phone from Toronto, she suggests that the spirit of Michael must have moved through her. For Ivana, who grew up in Canada listening to the album, singing Michael Jackson live means you had to seriously commit, both in voice and on stage. For the evening, Ivana wears a Thriller-styled outfit—white suit, black shirt, leopard pocket square, and, in a nice extra retro touch, a haircut echoing Ola Ray in the famous “Thriller” video.

“Lady” is the last song on the album, but it is no throw-away. Originally commissioned by Quincy from Temperton as a possible song for Frank Sinatra, it has the tricky melodies and chord structure that first attracted Quincy to the Englishman’s songwriting. Perhaps because of how it’s written, “Lady” is not a song that radio programmers gravitated to in the wake of Michael’s death. It may be more a singer’s song than a fan’s.

As challenging as Ivana found “Lady” to cover in 2009, Michael himself found it difficult to master for its original recording in 1983. In Moon Walk Michael wrote that it “was one of the most difficult tracks to cut. We were used to doing a lot of takes in order to get a vocal as nearly perfect as possible, but Quincy wasn’t satisfied with my work on that song, even after literally dozens of takes. Finally he took me aside late one session and told me he wanted me to beg. That’s what he said. He wanted me to go back in the studio and literally beg for it.”

“It” in this case meant sex. For Michael, who’d grown up watching soul men beg on stage, it was a matter of tapping into that knowledge. Going back into the Westlake studio, Michael had the studio lights turned off and the curtains closed between the studio and the control room. “Q started the tape and I begged,” he wrote. “The result is what you hear in the grooves.” That prodding by Quincy resulted in a performance of technical precision and sensuality.

So “Lady in My Life” ends Thriller with a song that reflects Quincy’s vision, Temperton’s skill, and Michael’s enormous vocal gifts. Thriller, the long-playing album, ends with Michael riding a laid-back rhythm. The record had ended, but the story was far from over.