Quincy Jones, miracle man

The legendary music producer has spent his life molding talent, taming egos and pleasing the public.

Pop Music

November 04, 2001|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,Special to the Sun

If only for his role in shaping Sarah Vaughan's immortal version of "Misty," Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" or Michael Jackson's pop landmark "Thriller," Quincy Jones' place in music history would be assured.

But perhaps a better barometer of Jones' abilities -- not just as the consummate behind-the-scenes music man, but as an amateur psychologist, motivational speaker and conjurer of minor miracles -- are those sessions when he was working with material of far lesser quality than "Misty." The sessions when, as Jones said, "you have to polish doo-doo."

As musicians hastily join to salute heroes in the wake of Sept. 11, it would be good to ponder the challenge Jones faced during the all-night session that produced "We Are the World," the 1985 Grammy-winning song that raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief. Jones tactfully dances around the song's artistic merits, or lack thereof, in his new book from Doubleday, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones. (The song is featured on Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones, a box set from Rhino.)

"Yeah, I know the song wasn't that good, but the cause was a good one, and I was asked to take the job because I'd already worked with 65 percent of the artists in the room," Jones says with an impish grin. "But it almost killed me."

There were 46 major artists and only 21 solos. Jones' famous solution was to post a sign: "Check your egos at the door."

"I knew many of these people personally, and I also knew that even little Paul Simon could give you the mumps if you stepped on his tail, or that Ray Charles would sooner kick your butt than tolerate any nonsense," Jones says. "I kept asking God, 'Don't quit on me tonight.' "

His prayers must have been answered. Jones went on to win three of his 26 Grammy Awards (for record, video and pop performance of the year).

Coping through music

For Jones, music became a matter of life and death soon after he was born, in 1933 in Chicago. His mother, a schizophrenic, was removed from his childhood home in a straitjacket. He and his brother, Lloyd, were often left alone while their father worked. For a brief time, they moved to Louisville to live with their grandmother, who cooked rats on a coal stove.

"My passion for music is my way of coping with a dysfunctional family life," he says. "Dysfunction became the fuel of my music and everything else that I did with my life."

Respect for rappers

In addition to his work with venerated vocalists from Dinah Washington to Aretha Franklin, the producer also has worked with numerous rappers in recent years, and became friends with the late Tupac Shakur, who briefly dated one of Jones' six daughters.

"Rappers are like bebop soloists," he says. "They listen once or twice to the track, and they compose a rap that is rhythmically syncopated, metrically correct, lyrically provocative ... there is talent involved in that, and professionalism. Hip-hop violates the aesthetic sensibility of people who don't open their mind. And I fear we are becoming a close-minded society because of the way radio is set up.

"Radio is failing us because it deals in categorization, and I detest categorization. One of my greatest memoirs is a picture of Ellington that he signed, 'You'll be the one to help decategorize American music.' Well, I've tried to do my part."

Greg Kot is a music critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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