‘I wanted to be a gangster’: Quincy Jones on battling Michael Jackson, befriending Sinatra and more

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He is perhaps the most influential figure in the history of modern music. From bebop to hip hop, Quincy Jones has made an indelible imprint on the sound of different genres, and he’s done it across generations.

Now at 85, he’s starting to think back on his truly remarkable legacy — and when he gets talking, he has the stories to back it up.

“I stopped drinking two years ago and everything’s so clear now, man. It’s just amazing, all the reflections I’ve been having, you know? It’s just amazing.”

Dressed all in black, eyes peering over his shades, Jones may be rolling in a wheelchair now but he’s still as smooth and slick as ever, navigating from memory to memory with the same precision he had as a musician. Here are some of the personal stories he shared in a Toronto interview with The National‘s Ian Hanomansing.

  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Quincy Jones tonight on CBC Television and streamed online

‘I wanted to be a gangster’

For seven decades, Jones’ fingerprints have been all over so many iconic recordings. But for such a musical genius, his path to music was far from straightforward.

Growing up in Chicago’s notorious South Side during the Great Depression, Jones had other dreams as a kid.

“I wanted to be a gangster, until I was 11. A serious gangster. Because I saw Tommy Guns every day, dead bodies, stogies, piles of money in back rooms, drexel wine and liquor, you know. Unbelievable, man!”

When he was 10, Jones moved to Bremerton, Wash., where his father took a wartime job at a naval shipyard. The change of scenery had no effect on Jones’ ambitions of being a gangster, until one night that changed his life.

During a robbery, Jones discovered music:

Quincy Jones talks about how, during a break-in when he was 11, fate exposed him to music and changed the path of his life. 0:36

Fly me to the moon

In junior high school, Jones had an insatiable thirst for playing every instrument he could get his hands on.

“Sousaphone, tuba, b-flat  baritone [horn], e-flat alto, French horn, trombone to play in the marching band with the majorettes. I love brass. Love it!”

He also learned fast.

At age 14, Jones was a jazz phenom as a trumpet player, befriending Ray Charles and playing in clubs across Seattle.

By 19, he was touring the world with Lionel Hampton’s band.

His list of collaborators during the 1950s alone reads as a who’s-who in jazz: Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley and Billie Holiday.

In 1964, Quincy Jones was arranging music for the Count Basie Orchestra and made his mark with his own take on a longtime jazz staple, In Other Words. The recording caught the attention of Frank Sinatra, who asked Jones to collaborate on a new version.

Jones added what is now the song’s signature swing, and Sinatra changed the title to Fly Me To The Moon.

The two stars worked together off and on for the next 20 years and became close friends. Jones still wears the ring that Sinatra left him when he died.

In this video, Jones talks about the birth of his son and how Sinatra sent a bond to cover the boy’s college education:

Quincy Jones relates how long-time friend Frank Sinatra sent his newborn son a bond and a note saying, ‘Let me welcome you to this world with a college education.’ 1:05

Don’t stop ’til you get your way

You can’t talk to Quincy Jones without mentioning his work with Michael Jackson. Off The Wall, Bad, and the second-highest-selling record of all time, Thriller.

His influence on all three of those albums is well documented, but when you ask Jones if he can think of a particular moment that highlights the mark he made on Thriller, of course he has a mind-blowing story to back it up. It’s tied to Jackson’s hit song Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.

“Michael sent me a note that said ‘could you please take out the violins in the introduction…'”:

Quincy Jones describes how Michael Jackson fought with him to change the iconic hook when recording the hit song Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough. 0:30

We are the world

After the success of Thriller, Jones recruited Michael Jackson for another big project — the star-studded blockbuster fundraising recording We are the world.

This time, Jackson was joined by 45 other superstars. In anticipation of having that much star power under one roof, Jones placed a sign on the front door of A&M studios in Los Angeles that read, “Check your egos at the door.”

“Diana Ross in her limousine with bodyguards, and Springsteen comes in his pickup truck. But they didn’t need to hear about ‘leave your egos at the door,’ they came for the right reasons, because they saw each other and they got it, they really did.”

The 1995 recording, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Jones, immediately topped the charts and became the fastest-selling American pop single ever recorded at the time. It sold more than 20 million copies, with the proceeds going to African famine relief.

In this video, Jones describes the challenge of wrangling all the celebrities involved with the project:

Quincy Jones talks about what it was like to work with a studio full of top stars on the charity recording. 1:44

So what’s next?

At 85, Jones shows no sign of slowing down.

Here Jones describes some of the projects he’s got in the works right now, from movies and albums to jazz lounges, adding “I’ve never been so busy in my life…”:

Quincy Jones talks about some of the plans he has in the works for shows and business ventures. ‘It’s unbelievable!’ 0:27
  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Quincy Jones tonight on CBC Television and streamed online


SOURCE: CBC.ca

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