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Making of Michael Jackson Off The Wall (Recording Sessions)

Updated on August 2, 2010

Prior to Off The Wall, Jackson and good friend Diana Ross suffered a huge disappointment. Michael’s first motion picture, “The Wiz”, bombed at the box office. It was a Motown adaption of “The Wizard of Oz”, which took one year to complete, and at the time was one of the most expensive films ever made.

Michael contributed vocal performances in six songs on the movie soundtrack, including “You Can’t Win” and “Ease on Down the Road”. Not only did this mark his new relationship with Epic records but also a new bond with Quincy Jones, who worked with Michael in “The Wiz”.

While on set, Jackson asked if Jones could recommend a young gun to produce his next solo record. Quincy offered to produce himself, excited to be part of his first release in four years. This marked the genesis of “Off The Wall”.

Jackson and Quincy in the early days.
Jackson and Quincy in the early days.

Jackson’s previous albums featured songs from a variety of songwriters such as Don Black and Walter Scharf, who wrote “Ben” for his 1972 album. This time Michael had written a few tracks himself. To ensure the remaining cuts were winners Jones and Michael listened to hundreds of songs.

Jones’ connections and Jackson’s previous success enabled them to work with the top names in the business. Paul McCartney contributed “Girlfriend”, Greene / Stevie Wonder brought in “I Can’t Help It” and Tom Bahler presented the emotionally charged “She’s Out of My Life”. The duet “It’s the Falling in Love”, was written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster. Arguably the strongest effort came from Rod Temperton who wrote three songs with Michael specifically in mind: “Rock With You”, “Off The Wall” and “Burn This Disco Out”.

The special edition CD of “Off the Wall” contains short interview snippets with Quincy Jones as well as demo recording of Michael’s songs: “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” and “Working Day and Night”. Jackson’s talents as a songwriter are all too often overlooked, due to his iconic showmanship and vocal chops. During the interview Jones calls Michael Jackson “an amazing songwriter” also stating that he “dug in”.

It’s clear that Jones is a big fan of the track “She’s Out of My Life”, which he mentions fondly several times. Jackson thrusted himself deeply into the spirit of the songs, staying up late into the night as Temperton recalls memorizing the lyrics and rehearsing. Jackson sang “She’s Out of My Life” with so much passion that he cried after every take. Jones was blown away feeling that Michael hadn’t been exposed to that depth of emotion before in a song, calling the track “emotionally mature”. Still in his early 20s Jones was unsure if Jackson had been in a serious relationship with a woman, and he seems to express that it was doubtful.

Heatwave. Rodney Lynn Temperton at far left.
Heatwave. Rodney Lynn Temperton at far left.

Rod Temperton got a call from Quincy Jones at the studio while recording with Funk/Disco outfit Heatwave. Rod wasn’t sure he could bring a lot to the table for Jackson’s project as we was already “working day and night” himself with his band. The two agreed that he was to deliver three tracks so that Michael and Jones could select the best one.
Amazingly when he presented the songs, Michael and Quincy were thrilled enough with the results to have all three recorded, instead of just one.

Temperton shares interesting experiences surrounding the recording sessions. Asked about the type of musicians required he recommended a standard rhythm section made up of two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. After flying in, Temperton found himself in a room with top session players he had never met before, eager to follow his lead. This was a totally new experience for him and no doubt an exciting one. In the past he had met at least some of the session musicians before banging out hits.

“Off The Wall” was a landmark album for Jackson, leading him up to the success of “Thriller” and “Bad”. It spawned four top ten hits. Jackson had mastered not only tracks for the dance floor but also soulful ballads, showing off his versatility as an artist. He also proved that he could not only write his own material competently, but write hits that had the staying power to become classics.

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