A Week of No Sleep

A Week of No Sleep

January 22 & 23     Security is tight this Tuesday evening outside Kenny Rogers’s Lion Share Studio, 8255 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles. Inside, up the stairway and down the green-carpeted, mirrored, brass-railed hallway, there is a commotion in Studio A: Skeet, Smelly, Stevie, and Q are carrying on. Lionel “Skeet” Richie, Michael “Smelly” Jackson (Quincy’s nickname for him because Michael is always so squeaky clean), Stevie Wonder, and producer Quincy “Q” Jones are running through an Acapulco (a cappella) version of the anthem Michael and Lionel have just finished—but not yet polished.

Tonight the basic instrumental track will be recorded, Lionel and Michael will add a “guide” vocal to teach the other artists the melody and lyrics, and fifty cassettes of the song will be dubbed for all those invited to sing. In addition to the aforementioned foursome (Stevie soon departs), the studio is swimming in musicians, organizers, techies, video crews, retinues, hangers-on, assistants, and spilled popcorn from a fierce kernel shootout between Michael and his constant companion, Emmanuel Lewis, star of Webster. There is a lovely platter of fresh fruit sitting on top of the garbage can in the control room, a not-so-subtle reminder of why everyone is here.

Studio A is a blond-wood, track-lit affair, all California plush and casual, and the mood in the room reflects it: everyone is relaxed and upbeat. Michael’s in black shirt and blue jeans, white socks and penny loafers. Lionel’s in a black leather jacket and his favorite Reeboks. Quincy wears one of his 25,000 sweaters. There are also video cameras, subtle as pink elephants, roaming the room.

Bassist Louis “Boot” Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson), supersession pianist Greg “Mouse” Phillinganes, and drummer John “J.R.” Robinson (of Rufus) warm themselves up with a rousing funk rendition of “Mares Eat Oats,” a gospelized version of “We Are the World,” and Stevie’s famous, “I Was Made to Love Her.” When they break into a spontaneous “Billie Jean,” little Emmanuel, who’s dancing next to Michael, sports a pint-sized body wave as his headphones fall all over his face. Lionel says, “I have not had this much fun in my whole life. We never get a chance to play.

As the trio gets a feel for the song, engineer Humberto Gatica changes the speed of the Urei digital metronome which will set the tempo for the tune. Everything else can change—instrumental tracks can be erased, modified, and others added after tonight—but there’s no changing the tempo once it’s been massaged by a forty-five-voice choir. After much experimentation—it’s moved from 19.5 beats a minute down to 17, then back up to 18—the musicians and Quincy finally settle on 19 beats a minute. Q announces, “That’s a good common denominator between the verses and the chorus.”

Now the trio is off on an endless series of run-throughs. Michael sits in the control room on a beige sofa behind the mixing board, sharing some grapes and inside jokes with Emmanuel, who’s lazing in his lap. Michael quietly asks for a banana from the other side of the room. When it’s thrown, Emmanuel intercepts à la Lester Hayes, but declines to spike the banana despite urging from those football fans present.

Meanwhile, work is being done. Quincy takes notes on his score. After a take, he tells Robinson, who’s motored along drumming a very simple, straight backbeat for the better part of an hour and has just thrown in a few rapid-fire tom-tom fills, “Don’t get too excited here, J.R. We want to keep it simple. Remember there’ll be all those voices singing above this. So eighth-note fills, not sixteenth-note fills. We don’t want it to get too frantic.”

Q works with each of the trio in fits and starts, shuttling back and forth between the control room and the studio between takes, sometimes providing direction through their headphones. He’s an architect, building a blockbuster from the bottom up. Tonight the foundation is being poured. Occasionally he glances at his handwritten blueprint which sits next to a stopwatch. It’s Q’s cue sheet:

:06 Intro

:15 VS I

:44 VS II

1:08 Chos I

1:40 VS III

2:35 Bridge

3:02 Chos III

3:30 Chos IV

3:57 Chos V—mod

4:25 Chos VI

4:53 Chos VII

5:20 Chos VIII

5:48 Chos IX

6:15 serious fills—


Let’s see, that’s three verses (VS), one bridge, nine choruses (Chos) with a modulation (mod) on the fifth one, and some nastily sanctified vocal hollers on the way out (serious fills). As the trio grinds on in the studio, Michael, Lionel, and friends huddle in the hallway with a copy of the National Enquirer. The cover story details Joanna Carson’s recent legal action, which claims she can’t live on $44,600 a month. Everyone runs down her list of monthly expenses, clothing and jewelry and so on. The story becomes an absurd motif for the evening, an extreme counterpoint between the extravagant world the performers themselves live in and the purpose of the project at hand.

A few hours of work and the trio feels it’s hit stride on the umpteenth run-through, the fifth recorded take. They come in the control room to listen to the playback. Quincy is still not satisfied. He tells them he wants one more take, “because you won’t be thinking about it this time. I still hear a little bit of thought in there now. You know, like on a road map—turn right, turn left. I still hear that.” Greg “Mouse” Phillinganes can’t complain about all the repetition. On his way back into the studio he says, “A lot of people will live because of this record.”

Before the sixth take, Q, a bit restless now, calls to his musicians, “Let’s do it, guys!” After this prompting, they’re sure to mess up—and they do (a number of times on the introduction), but soon they’re rolling. Lionel kneels behind the mixing board; Michael sits on the couch with his head nodding to the beat and his lap full of Emmanuel; and before long Humberto, in mid-take, is hugging Q at the board, telling him, “This is gonna be big! Big!” and Q is laughing his approval. As the trio filters back to the control room to listen to the playback, Lionel tells Quincy, “First of all, it’s soulful at the beginning and then it walks to the end. It demands nothing more than the choir clapping at the end. In fact,” continues Lionel, tongue in cheek, “we’ll probably have better participation with the clapping than with the singing.” During the playback in the control room, the trio is in such high spirits (they’re done working) that when they begin humming the melody with Lionel, Humberto, and Quincy, it somehow turns into a giddy imitation of The Bee Gees. Slapstick studio surrealism! Everyone’s hysterical with laughter.

Next, the studio is prepared for Lionel and Michael to cut the vocal. Three chest-high baffles and one microphone are placed in the corner of the room. The video crew has gone home, and it’s time to get down to the business of singing, At 11:00 p.m., they begin laying down the vocal. This is the first time they’ve sung together, and they beat away the natural nervousness between takes with a little small talk. Michael drums his fingers against the baffles in staccato rhythmic bursts. They talk quietly, comparing notes:

Michael: Do you ever go to the record store?

Lionel: No.

Michael: ‘Cause you can get caught.

Lionel: Tell me about it. [laughs]

Michael: But you can sell a lot of records, though.

Lionel: You do a lot of autographs right quick! Do you go?

Michael: Sometimes I’ll sneak in late, after everyone’s gone . . .

One photographer remains on the scene—Sam Emerson, Michael’s personal snapper—and as he moves in for a shot, Michael asks, “Are we taking a picture?” Sam responds, “No, I’m taking a picture. You’re in a picture.” They stand around waiting as an assistant engineer changes the microphone—despite the fact that tonight’s vocals will go no farther than cassette. On the next take, Lionel and Michael embellish the melody, phrasing slightly off the beat and improvising emotionally. Quincy strides into the studio. “Hey, Sam and Dave!” he calls to Skeet and Smelly, “on the chorus, really nail the melody, play it straight. You know, demonology would not be encouraged!” It’s Q’s way of reminding them that the purpose of this vocal recording is merely to teach the other artists the song, and not to “tear the roof off the sucker.”

Hurrying back to the control room, he thinks out loud, “I’ve never seen Smelly with this much energy this late at night.” Michael’s been hanging out late with Lionel so much, it must be osmosis. Then again, Michael shows he’s not yet completely reformed when he compares schedules with Lionel. “I’m getting up at 5:30 in the morning to daydream,” he says. For a moment Lionel is silent. (Here is a man who goes to sleep at 5:30.) Finally the enormity of Michael’s task hits him. He asks incredulously, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The major problem of the evening is the lyrics, specifically the third line of the chorus: “There’s a chance we’re taking, we’re taking our own lives.” From the control room, Quincy tells them he’s worried about the second part of the line.

Quincy: Smelly, I know what you mean, but the record is colloquial and that’s gonna be taken as a suicide line . . .

Michael: I thought about that too.

Quincy: . . . Rather than be heard as “We’re taking our lives in our own hands.” [They all listen to a playback.]

Lionel: We’re saving our own lives.

Quincy: Yeah, that’s much better.

Lionel and Michael change the line on their copy of the sheet music. As they work together, the photographer sees a moment of history. Lionel jokes, “This is McCartney and Lennon!” while Emerson narrates and commands, “This is an all-time classic shot, guys! One, two, three! One more time. One more time. One more time. Again. Again. Thank you gentlemen, that was great.” After a few more passes on the chorus Quincy comes back into the studio. This time, he’s worried that the first part of the line—”There’s a chance we’re taking”—will make the group sound self-glorifying. He walks behind the baffles and all three collapse onto the carpet. Lionel laughs, “This is when you truly get the record together, when you hit the floor.” Q tells them, “One thing we don’t want to do, especially with this group, is look like we’re patting ourselves on the back. So it’s really, ‘There’s a choice we’re making.‘” Michael sings the new line. Lionel responds, “You’re right. I love it.” Quincy: “It sounds like a commitment.”

While they’re down for the count, the three of them decide to roll up their sleeves and do a bit more carpentry on the lyrics. The phrase “a brighter day” currently appears twice in the four-line chorus, and Lionel and Quincy are lobbying to replace the second “brighter” with another word, maybe “better.”

Michael: “Brighter” twice there doesn’t bother me. It feels natural to say it again.

Quincy: But you get a stronger feeling there, Smelly, if you use another word.

Michael: (sings it) It doesn’t feel natural . . .

Lionel: It makes a lesser impact if we sing “brighter” back to back.

Lionel and Michael sing it together and decide “better” will work. But just when they think they’ve got “brighter” behind them, they realize there’s another “brighter” in the second line of the third verse: “And their lives will be so much brighter and free.” The threesome, now hopelessly prone on the carpet, search for a replacement. After ten minutes, they try singing “stronger and free” and Q shouts, “Hello!” (When Quincy shouts “Hello!” he means, “Yes, that’s right, perfect.”) Skeet and Smelly do a little sanding and planing on the phrasing of the lyrics and it’s done. They’re not ready to nail the “guide” vocal. It’s ’round midnight.

The problem at this point is that they’re having a hard time making it through a chorus without flubbing a line, mispronouncing a word, or losing consciousness. The between-takes chatter is now veering off into the realm of Michael’s asking Lionel about the horrors of rum-and-coke hangovers (Lionel gave up such pastimes after college), general comparisons between Amadeus and Prince, and Lionel’s exaggerating a line in the first verse with a deep swell in his voice, in the manner of a hack lounge singer, “Yahhh know, love is alllllll weeeeee neeeeed!” Michael laughs, “That’s for when you do Vegas, right? When you’re sixty.” Lionel rushes to his defense, “I don’t want to do Vegas till I’m seventy, man.” After a pregnant pause, he resumes with an imaginary example from that frightful scenario, singing. “You’re onnnnnnce, you’re twiiiiice—Hey, thank you everybody, thanks for coming out—You’re threeeeee times a lady.” It’s slaphappy time among industry giants.

Their concentration has faded and they keep singing the old “taking” instead of the new and improved “saving.” Michael giggles after every mistake. Lionel throws up his hands apologetically. Just when it seems they’re about to get it right, they split the difference on the mistake, singing “saking.” Lionel kicks himself, “That’s right, saking. We’re saking our own lives. Oh boy. I can just see people walk in the room and say, Who are those two in there?'” Since they keep baking clams, there’s plenty of time for conversation between takes. They discuss Diana Ross, a woman they’ve both worked with, and Michael mentions how much he likes the way she phrased a particular line on her “Endless Love” duet with Lionel. Brenda Richie, Lionel’s wife, has come by and enters the studio to take orders: Evian mineral water for them both, and “grapes . . . with a fork” for Michael. When Lionel’s asked the vintage of the Evian, he replies, “It’s yesterday.” Yesterday seems like a long time ago. It was a very good year.

About 1:30 a.m., they begin working on a chorus fill of “sha-lum sha-lingay.” It’s a little nonsense phonetic phrase Michael made up and it sounds nice in the open spaces, along with the handclaps the two are now adding. After a long series of “sha-lum sha-lingay” Lionel looks into the control room, and drolly remarks, “Man, like, is the album finished?” At which point Q replies, “If we start getting it too good, someone’s gonna start playing it on the radio. Let’s not put anything more on this tape.” Agreed.

After a short break, the three of them sit down in the studio with Ken Kragen and begin to deal with the few minor problems that remain now that the song has been put to bed: How are they going to pull this off without offending friends? By now Kragen’s had to turn down over fifty artists who want to join the project— there’s simply no room in the studio or on the record. It’s been an agonizing chore for him, saying no to artists this past week. How are they going to pull this off without ravaging egos? Who will not get to sing a solo line? Or pull it off without encouraging cynics? Where were these guys before Band Aid? And the money probably won’t even get to Africa. Or pull it off without developing ulcers? No one is sleeping much these days and everyone is worrying.

The meeting breaks up at 3:00 a.m.. Quincy and Lionel work off some nervous energy discussing potential problems. Lionel says, “The main thing is for you and Humberto to get your signals together on the technical side, and I’m gonna be the ambassador in the room. I can float.” Quincy responds, “Man, you know what? By the time we get there, the spirit of this thing will be so real and beautiful that we won’t have any problems. Especially if we work out our choreography. Because the spirit is so strong. That’s why we got involved in the first place . . .” They discuss whether or not to overdub some synthesizers later in the week and say their good nights (good mornings). Everyone is out the door of Lion Share Studio by 3:30 sharp. That gives Michael two hours of sleep before he has to get up to daydream.

January 24     The cassette dub of “We Are the World” goes out to all the artists via Federal Express, which in the spirit of the event foots the bill. (The lead sheets are not ready and will go out tomorrow.) Enclosed is a letter from Quincy Jones. The line in which Quincy indicates where the session is to be held is blacked out after Kragen decides not to let even the artists know the location of the recording until the day arrives.

January 25     This bright Friday morning Ken Kragen chairs a production meeting in a stucco bungalow in the back of his office complex just off Sunset Boulevard. Present are some twenty associates variously involved in legal matters; flower and plant procurement; talent coordination; promotion; transportation; interviewing; art direction; food, drink, and ice acquisition; video documentation; public relations; traffic control; credentials; security; and plumbing. Kragen addresses the plumbing problem immediately: “The single most damaging leak of information is where we’re doing this. If that shows up anywhere, we’ve got a chaotic situation around that studio that could totally destroy the project. The moment a Prince, a Michael Jackson, a Bob Dylan—I guarantee you!—drive up and see a mob around that studio, they will never come in. They are not going to face that. This is the single most high-priority issue.” From here the meeting unravels into a consideration of every possible contingency. There will be barricades at the entrance. There will be bags (stapled shut) to hold cameras and tape recorders brought by people indelicate enough to smuggle them in and careless enough to be caught. Doors of nonessential rooms will be locked so that artists can not wander off and not be found. Should there be magazines for the artists in the green room? How wide should the risers be from which the artists will sing? What’s to be done with protocol (no guests in the studio) if Sinatra shows up? On the floor of the bungalow, there rests a blackboard on which is drawn a diagram of a football play. And what if the press blitzes?

At 3:00 p.m., Quincy and Humberto Gatica reconvene at Lion Share Studio to overdub a few synthesizer parts. Present are three keyboardists: fast-talking John Barnes, who pauses in his smiling discourses only to light his cigarettes; Michael Melvoin, an old friend of Quincy’s, president of N.A.R.A.S. (the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences—the Grammy folks), and father of Prince guitarist Wendy Melvoin; and Michael Boddicker, a basketball-tall synth wiz with long blond angel curls, nicknamed “Lily” because in the old days of synthesizers (way back in the ’70s) the players used patch cords to program sounds, and Michael would sit at his machine with the cords around his neck like Lily Tomlin, telephone operator. All three musicians will be using Boddicker’s setup, an explosion of electronics in the middle of the studio: two Yamaha DX-7’s, a Roland Jupiter 6, a Jupiter 8, an Emulator II, a Prophet, a Minimoog, a PPG Wave 2.3. All told, eight keyboards and four floppy-disk drives.

Quincy announces the order of the day to his three keyboard players: “We need to put some goose grease on this!” He wants to make the track fatter, smoother, easier for forty-five voices to follow. The pace is slow, almost soporific. There are no video cameras today. Very unglamorous stuff. “Recording synthesizers,” quoth Q, “is like painting a 747 with Q-Tips.” John Barnes begins by replacing “Boot” Johnson’s electric bass line with a cleaner, more transparent synth bass.

By the time the fuselage is covered, Al Jarreau’s on the phone to Quincy for details about Monday night. Quincy is dressed in his standard attire: red pullover sweater, stone-washed black-orange jeans, mustard socks, two-tone brown leather shoes. He issues a wry command over the phone: “After the American Music Awards, we all change out of our clothes, ’cause we don’t want to make a hunger record in tuxedos.” Jelly Bean Benitez, re-mix master from the South Bronx and producer of the moment (Madonna) comes by to make the scene. Tom Bahler, Q’s associate producer and vocal arranger, also shows up, looking like a man who has the world on his shoulders but for some strange reason is happy about it.

Bahler, gray-bearded and safari-shirted, retreats to the back room, where amid a rampaging video game and television, he peruses his lead sheet, hunting for solos. He says, “It’s like vocal arranging in a perfect world.” (Q sees the other side of the same equation: “It’s like putting a watermelon in a Coke bottle.”) Bahler’s familiar with the vocal ranges of most of the artists, but twenty-four albums have just been purchased for him so he can check the limits of the others—tonight’s homework. The goal here is to match each solo line with the voice for which it was made.

Mike Melvoin records a counterpoint line, and “Lily” adds a unison violin line to give the chorus something to snuggle up to. Humberto excitedly tells Q, “It’s gonna be big! Big!” Q leans back from the board in his swivel chair. Boddicker points out that he can make it even better. Quincy, mindful of Monday night, says, “Let’s not get hypnotized by painting or we’ll just paint ourselves into a corner.”

At the end of the session, Bahler asks Q whether Tina Turner could sing a low E. They spend the next five minutes discussing the physical properties of that note, which all agree is a tricky one. Bahler points out that Tina begins her recent and now famous hit, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” with a G sharp. This will be a record in search of perfection.

January 26     A final choreography session at Lionel’s house Saturday evening. All the principals, except Jackson, attend. Decisions are made as to where each artist will stand for the chorus and for the solos. Decisions are made as to what order the work will be done in, and how the video shoot and the poster and album-cover photography will be accommodated. Each singer’s name is put on a little card and arranged and rearranged among the others until the right mix is found. Let’s see, Willie goes over here, and Bruce over there, Diana like so, and . . .

January 27     No one can quite fathom why Ken Kragen, Quincy Jones, and Harry Belafonte have gotten themselves on a live satellite broadcast to Australia on the night before the night they will surely be up all night. But there is a telethon in Australia to raise money for famine relief efforts, and the three Americans join Olivia Newton-John (who’s talking about an Australian Band Aid project) and Bob Geldof (jet-lagged, just in from Ethiopia to rally the American troops) in asking Australians to give generously. While Geldof describes the horrors of the relief camps in a hospitality room burdened by an impossibly large spread of food at its center, Quincy is on the monitor in the corner, appealing to the Australian viewers. “My wife always tells me, ‘Well, you made a great record, but it’s only a record. It’s not a cure for cancer.’ Now this is really a serious time, a serious time for us to commit ourselves—to get ourselves out of the ‘I, Me, Mine’ and get into ‘We, Us, Togetherness.'”

Quincy Jones’s letter to the artists. The name of the studio was blacked out to preserve secrecy. The artist were only told the day of the recording session where to assemble.