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

Part II. THRILLER

“BABY BE MINE”

THIS SONG, WRITTEN BY THE SOMETIMES INSPIRED, often formulaic, hardworking British subject Rod Temperton, is probably the least interesting tune on Thriller. This typical R&B song probably was not good enough to have made it onto the more-dance-oriented Off the Wall. It’s nowhere close to the level of “Rock with You,” an R&B groove classic Temperton had written for that album.

The songwriter had been a member of Heatwave, an integrated soul band with members from the United States and Britain. Temperton, born and raised in England, was a student of black music; he became adept at crafting songs in a variety of tempos with rock-solid melodic structure and very generic lyrics. In 1976 Heatwave released a classic twelve-inch with “The Groove Line,” a well-made, guitar-based dance record, on one side and a beautiful slow jam, “Always and Forever,” on the other. Johnnie Wilder, Heatwave’s lead singer, gave a remarkable performance that still creates a romantic aura whenever it’s played.

Wilder’s vocals elevated “Always and Forever,” but Temperton’s understanding of the genre built the platform for that performance. This skill attracted Quincy to Temperton’s songs and made the Englishman part of Quincy’s creative team. “I heard the Heatwave records and I had to look at them like an X-ray to figure out what it was that so knocked me out about them,” he told me in 1982.

After listening enough, I could see that it was the vision of this one guy, a complete songwriter, not like too many I’ve heard before. He has a natural intuitive feeling for counterpoint, not even knowing what it is. That is one of the things that really hold it together. I think that is dealing with pop music on a very high level. Without getting too heady about it, counterpoint adds another strong element to a pop song.

[Temperton] will not stop until it works. Sometimes he gives me fifty titles on a song. I love a writer who explores all the possibilities and get[s] into it. It’s too easy to just get a couple of ditties together and throw it down. “Take it or leave it,” they say. A lot of writers do that. I can’t deal with that because it’s not enough commitment.

WHITE SONGWRITERS HAVE had a place in the world of R&B since the 1950s, when the writing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller composed a string of classic songs. The late 1970s saw many white songwriters working in the black pop space, which, depending on point of view, was a golden era for the music or a low point in its history. From 1977 to 1979, white songwriters won the Grammy Award for R&B song of the year: Boz Scaggs and David Paich for “Lowdown” (recorded by Scaggs), Leo Sayer and Vini Poncia for “You Make Me Feel like Dancing” (recorded by Sayer), and Paul Jabara for “Last Dance” (recorded by Donna Summer).

Scaggs’s track was a smooth, lightly funk groove with a very casual-sounding melody, a great bridge, and a lovely keyboard riff that was as cool as anything on the radio then or now. A year later, Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel like Dancing” was a cute disco-influenced ditty by a lightweight white British singer with a curly Afro. It had been a major pop hit and had even generated some cursory black radio play. But that it was awarded R&B record of the year over four enduring classics—“Don’t Leave Me This Way” (by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert), “Easy” (by Lionel Richie), “Brick House” (by Richie with the rest of the Commodores), and “Best of My Love” (by Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White and Al McKay)—was a travesty.

Not quite as horrible, but in retrospect still quite silly, was Jabara’s win with “Last Dance,” which was given the Grammy over Gamble and Huff’s soulful “Use ta Be My Girl,” written for the O’Jays, and Maurice White, Verdine White, and Eddie Del Barrio’s clever “Fantasy,” for their band, Earth, Wind and Fire. These wins said a great deal about how the record industry viewed black pop music in the late 1970s, attitudes that Michael Jackson would be responding to with Thriller.

During the mid-1970s, when R&B became interchangeable with dreaded disco for many in and out of the industry, respect for black popular music took a serious nosedive. Whereas the early 1970s of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and so many other giants had been a golden era, later in the decade black musical culture became less ambitious. Dance music was the in thing, which wasn’t necessarily bad (black music had always been dance music), but some awful records by major acts (ever hear Aretha’s disco album?) and the primacy of producers over self-contained singer-songwriters made old fans of the music, black as well as white, turn their back on it. The sad truth of the period is that many black performers, either by choice or at the suggestion of record executives or managers, were altering their music, thinking disco-flavored tracks were the key to pop acceptance, even as this choice alienated so many of their traditional fans.

The membership of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (aka the Grammy voters) were not only overwhelmingly white, but were also the very people ghettoizing black music in their day jobs. Throughout the 1970s, when Earth, Wind and Fire was arguably the best band in popular music, genre be damned, it did not get enough wins in the R&B (or pop) category during the band’s peak years. The same was the case with Lionel Richie during his Commodore years and seminal bands such as Parliament-Funkadelic. The wins of Sayer and Jabara in particular, and Scaggs to a lesser degree, were graphic examples of this massive disrespect.

Unsurprisingly, then, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, which had sold 11 million copies and reflected the maturation of a major star, received no Grammy nominations in any pop categories. “My pride in the rhythms, the technical advances and the success of ‘Off the Wall’ was offset by the jolt I got when the Grammy nominations were announced for 1979,” he wrote. “Although ‘Off the Wall’ had been one of the most popular records of the year, it received only one nomination: Best R&B Vocal Performance [for the single]. I remember where I was when I got the news. I felt ignored by my peers and it hurt. . . . I watched the ceremony on television and it was nice to win in my category, but I was still upset by what I perceived as the rejection of my peers.”

Despite the great songs Quincy and Michael had collected, and the quality of Michael’s vocals, Off the Wall was consigned to the dance ghetto by the industry’s voters. The challenge that Quincy and Michael confronted in designing Thriller was how to move their music, figuratively and literally, out to the suburbs. “Baby Be Mine,” one of the most conventional tracks on the album, wouldn’t do much to help the process. Not surprisingly, it was one of the few songs on the album not released as a single.