For some strange reason, I have a history of meeting young performers when they reach age 12. There was Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Tevin Campbell, and, of course, Michael Jackson. In 1978 Sidney Lumet pulled me kicking and screaming into doing the music for The Wiz, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael as the Scarecrow. Michael dived into the filming, learning not only his lines but everyone else's. There was only one problem: there's a scene where the Scarecrow starts pulling proverbs from his stuffing and talking about Socrates. Michael kept saying "So-crates." It was really interesting to watch; either because of his age or his fame, no one wanted to correct him. After about the third time, I pulled Michael aside and told him the correct pronunciation. He looked at me with the big, wide eyes of a child opening a present under the Christmas tree and said, "Really?" It was at that moment that I said, "Michael, I'd like to produce your solo album." It was that wonderment I saw in his eyes that locked me in, the idea that we could go into unexplored territory, a place that, as a jazz musician, gave me goosebumps.
Michael and Freddy DeMann and Ron Weisner, his managers at the time, went to Epic Records and told them they wanted me to do the album, which went over like a sack of potatoes. Epic thought I was too jazzy and completely rejected the idea. Michael was crushed, but he was also very savvy when it came to business—it was one of his attributes that I think people underestimated. He'd been around the record business long enough with the Jackson 5 to know how to work record executives. He flatly told the label that I was doing the album. Eventually, they gave in, and we began making Off the Wall.
Michael was so shy, he'd sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes—and the lights off. We tried all kinds of tricks to help with his artistic growth, like dropping keys just a minor third to give him flexibility and a more mature range, and adding more than a few tempo changes. I also tried to steer him to songs with more depth, some of them about real relationships—we weren't going to make it with ballads to rodents. Seth Riggs, a leading vocal coach, gave him vigorous warm-up exercises to expand his top and bottom range—which I desperately needed to get the vocal drama going. We approached that record like we were going into battle. Off the Wall would sell 10 million copies, but anyone who tells you that they knew it was going to be a big hit is an out-and-out liar. We had no idea it was going to be as successful as it was, but we were thrilled. Michael had moved from the realm of bubblegum pop and planted his flag squarely in the heart of the musical pulse of the '80s.
From then on, I called Michael "my little brother," and like the world, I was devastated at the news that he had suddenly passed away. How could that be? This wonderful artist who commanded the stage with catlike grace, shattered recording-industry records, and broke down cultural boundaries around the world, and yet remained the gentlest of souls. He was a different kind of entertainer. He'd work for hours, perfecting every lick, gesture, and movement so that they came together precisely the way they were intended to. We achieved heights in the '80s that I can humbly say may never be reached again, and reshaped the music business forever. How could Michael be gone? He was a part of my soul.