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Michael Jackson Backing Vocals Collection

On Sunday it was eight years since Michael Jackson died. To mark that anniversary, here’s a mix of songs on which MJ sang backing vocals in the 1970s and ‘80s — and a bit of background on those songs.

Right off the bat, I break the promise of the title, for on Paul McCartney’s The Man, from 1983, he is credited as Macca’s duet partner. Say Say Say was the big hit, but I rather prefer this song, which was only an album track. Both collaborations were produced by George Martin, bringing together a triple-threat of genius — albeit without creating a work of genius.

Another meeting of geniuses that doesn’t quite live up to its billing is that of Jackson, Burt Bacharach and his future wife, Carole Bayer Sager (with Jim Keltner on drums). Just Friends was written by Bacharach and Bayer Sager, and was co-produced by Burt and Michael, with the latter also contributing vocals.

Of course, Michael helped the siblings with his vocals. Here he does so very early in his career on Jermaine’s That’s How Love Goes; and on La Toya’s quite strange 1980 disco groover Night Time Lover, co-written with MJ, which halfway through turns into a Latin jam before it becomes a disco groover in the vein of Off The Wall again. Michael also featured on Janet’s 1984 track Don’t Stand Another Chance, which is too awful to feature here.

Michael was also generous in helping people who had played for him. One such people was session keyboard/synth player Bill Wolfer, who did tinkle the keys on Billie Jean, Beat It and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. MJ repaid the favour by contributing backing vocals to two tracks on Wolfer’s debut album, the featured So Shy and a cover of Papa Was A Rolling Stone.

Wolfer reappears on the synth on very next track, Diana Ross’ Muscles, which Jackson wrote, produced and sings back-up on. Wolfer also played for Stevie Wonder on Hotter Than July, though, alas, not on All I Do, on which MJ did backing vocals. Six years earlier, Michael also appeared on backing vocals on Stevie’s You Haven’t Done Nothing.

Michael Jackson and the ubiquitous Greg Phillinganes.

Another keyboardist with a Jackson/Wonder connection was Greg Phillinganes, featuring here with a 1984 number co-written by MJ that sounds very much of its time. Phillinganes was discovered by Wonder through an introduction by the legendary session drummer Ricky Lawson (whose works were featured in two retrospectives: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). Through Wonder Phillinganes became the musical director first of The Jacksons, starting in 1978, and remained in that gig for much of Michael’s career.

Phillinganes also played on Donna Summer’s eponymous 1982 album produced by Quincy Jones, including on State Of Independence, which features here, for which Jones assembled an impressive array of backing vocalists, including Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Brenda Russell, Christopher Cross, Dyan Cannon, James Ingram, Kenny Loggins, Stevie Wonder and, of course, Michael Jackson (not all of them were credited). Quincy later claimed that recording this song laid the foundations for his production of We Are The World three years later.

Quincy Jones, of course, would often bring a galaxy of stars together for his albums. On the title track of 1981’s The Dude album, he has Michael Jackson plus Syretta Wright, Jim Gilstrap and LaLomie Washburn backing James Ingram on lead vocals. Stevie Wonder is on the synth, Louis Johnson is on bass, and you’ll never guess who’s on the electric piano…

MJ and QJ

And talking of Louis Johnson — himself the subject of a retrospective here — Quincy also produced The Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night album (which featured the hit Stomp, on which our friend Greg Phillinganes played the synth). Michael Jackson co-wrote This Had To Be with the Johnson brothers; so he sang on it, too.

As it sometimes happens, recording an album in a studio next to a big star can create moments of serendipity. This is not to say that Dave Mason wasn’t a star, but his career was on a downward trajectory when he recorded his Old Crest On A New Wave album, while MJ’s was very much on the up. Next door The Jacksons were recording their Triumph album (the one with Can You Feel It, which also featured Greg Phillinganes). For his song Save Me, Mason needed a high-pitched voice, and next door there was just the right guy…

Something similar happened with Joe ‘King’ Carrasco & The Crowns, who were recording in one room of Studio 55 on 5555 Melrose in L.A. in 1981. Michael Jackson was in the other room, and when the Tex Mex band had the bright idea of asking MJ to sing backing vocals on one of their songs, a rather poor faux-reggae number, the future mega deferentially agreed. He wasn’t credited; given the song, he probably didn’t want to be. Read the full story.

Michael Jackson and Joe ‘King’ Carrasco at one of the more unlikely sessions collaborations in 1981.

Jackson was the kind of guy you just had to ask. Kenny Loggins did that in 1979, before Jackson hit the really big time with the Off The Wall album. “I was at a benefit that Michael was at, and I asked him if he would like to sing on the record,” Loggins later recalled. “He said yeah…He was available, he wanted to do it, he was a fan.” Loggins later realised that Who’s Right Who’s Wrong wasn’t the right song on which to use MJ’s vocals. “Had I really thought it through, I should have probably recorded something up-tempo with him. I kick myself and think that was a waste of his talent. Great tune and everything, but just not the right tune for Michael Jackson to be singing on.” True.

There’s something a little weird about the Minnie Riperton track. After Riperton’s untimely death in 1979, her husband passed vocal tracks the great singer had recorded to Quincy Jones who then roped in an array of great musicians to record arrangements or contribute vocals for what would become the 1980 album Love Lives Forever. For I’m In Love Again, Quincy got in Michael Jackson to duet with the late Minnie (Hubert Laws features on flute).

The most famous MJ backing vocal probably is that which turned Rockwell’s mildly interesting Somebody’s Watching Me into one of the great hits of 1984. Michael, a childhood friend of the singer born Kennedy William Gordy, sang the catchy chorus, leaving the boring verses to Rockwell, who was Motown owner Berry Gordy’s son. At the time Rockwell was estranged from Gordy and was living with his mother, the great Ray “Miss Ray” Singleton (who died last year). It was Singleton who produced the song and played it for her ex-husband. Gordy was not impressed and disinclined to release it — until he heard the chorus with that familiar voice.

I don’t know if MJ sang on soul diva Jennifer Holliday’s You’re The One; he co-wrote the song and produced it. And, my goodness, it almost sounds like he is singing it as well. I think the whispered line “You’re the one” is Michael’s voice. Guitar on the track is by Earl Klugh.

And then there was the time Michael Jackson went country. Kenny Rogers in his 1981 album track Goin’ Back To Alabama features on backing vocals not only MJ but also one Lionel B. Richie Jr., who wrote and produced this (unmistakably so) and several other songs on the album it comes from.

As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes home-moonwalked covers. PW in comments.

1. Paul McCartney feat. Michael Jackson – The Man (1983)
2. Stevie Wonder – All I Do (1980)
3. Quincy Jones – The Dude (1981)
4. Kenny Loggins – Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong (1979)
5. Dave Mason – Save Me (1980)
6. La Toya Jackson – Night Time Lover (1980)
7. Brothers Johnson – This Had To Be (1980)
8. Bill Wolfer – So Shy (1982)
9. Diana Ross – Muscles (1982)
10. Jermaine Jackson – That’s How Love Goes (1972)
11. Kenny Rogers – Goin’ Back To Alabama (1981)
12. Carole Bayer Sager – Just Friends (1981)
13. Jennifer Holliday – You’re The One (1984)
14. Minnie Riperton – I’m In Love Again (1980)
15. Donna Summer – State Of Independence (1982)
16. Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me (1984)
17. Greg Phillinganes – Behind The Mask (Who Do You Know) (1984)
18. Joe ‘King’ Carrasco – Don’t Let A Woman (Make A Fool Out Of You) (1982)

GET IT!

Previous session musicians’ collection:
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 1
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 2
The Steve Gadd Collection Vol. 3
The Bernard Purdie Collection Vol. 1

The Bernard Purdie Collection Vol. 2
The Ricky Lawson Collection Vol. 1
The Ricky Lawson Collection Vol. 2
The Jim Gordon Collection Vol. 1
The Jim Gordon Collection Vol. 2
The Hal Blaine Collection Vol. 1
The Hal Blaine Collection Vol. 2
The Bobby Keys Collection
The Louis Johnson Collection
The Bobby Graham Collection
The Jim Keltner Collection Vol. 1
The Jim Keltner Collection Vol. 2
The Ringo Starr Collection

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  1. halfhearteddude
    June 29th, 2017 at 08:03 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. Walter Endres
    June 29th, 2017 at 13:40 | #2

    Great idea and great compilation! I myself am missing the Freddie Mercury / MJ version of “There must be more to Life then this” from “Queen Forever” but it may be argued that his is more a regular duet than backing vocals contribution by MJ. I guess that’s why another Paul McCartney song than “Say Say Say” has been chosen …

  3. Jimmy Mac
    July 1st, 2017 at 17:04 | #3

    So the verses on “Somebody’s Watching Me” are “boring?” Really? Ummmm……okay. I think you might be in a definite minority with that statement.

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