He produced the biggest album ever, befriending movie stars as well as presidents. At 77, Quincy Jones is in no danger of running out of stories.
After a few minutes in Quincy Jones’s engaging company I begin to see why his PR people are so jittery. The man has an easy charm and is a natural raconteur. But he is also a loose cannon. Over the next hour or so, I find myself nodding and laughing as he tells me of his passion for Nazi cinema, how he lost his virginity at 12 and how he experimented with every drug going.
In a career that spans six decades, Quincy Jones has worked with Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Dizzie Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and P Diddy, to name but a few. Most notably, he was the producer of choice for Frank Sinatra for years. Indeed, it was his arrangement of Fly Me to the Moon that became the first music played in space (Buzz Aldrin took a recording of it with him for the first moon landing).
At the age of 77, Q, as he is known to his friends, is still considered one of the leading producers in the world, with a record 79 Grammy nominations and 27 Grammy awards to his name. And he is still writing film scores, still conducting, still arranging. And still making records, his latest Q: Soul Bossa Nostra is released this month.
It features contemporary versions of songs from Jones’s extensive catalogue, with singers such as LL Cool J, Mary J Blige, Usher, Snoop Dogg and Amy Winehouse ‘paying tribute’ to the producer. ‘Each artist picked a song that resonated with them for different reasons,’ Jones says. ‘They all made them their own and knocked them out of the park.’
He can also still claim, 28 years after Jackson’s Thriller first went on sale, to have produced the most successful album of all time. Not only that, but the most successful single, too, with We Are the World. On that occasion he pinned up a notice in the studio that the assembled stars could not miss: ‘Check your egos at the door.’
Today, as he sits in a suite at the Dorchester, he’s not in bad shape for his age. A bit of a paunch maybe, but he dresses with the brio of a younger man, like an extra from a Seventies television show: safari suit, colourful scarf, orange shirt, dog tags, earrings. He has a thin ’tache shading his top lip and although he talks in a jazz musician patois, he is articulate and his recall is excellent.
Next to him is a box with one of the expensive Quincy Jones signature brand AKG headphones in it, strategically placed there by the PR from the manufacturers, Harman International Industries (who has insisted on sitting in on the interview, at the other end of the room and we won’t even know he’s there, honestly). You can understand why they would want his name associated with their product.
Jones tells me that he does actually use this brand in the studio, and has done so for years. But, amusingly, he also mentions a rival brand to me by mistake, and when he does I sense the PR on the other side of the room burying his head in his hands.
Before coming to London to launch the headphones, Jones has been in Paris and Berlin. Sounds like they’re working him hard, I say. ‘Yeah, but as long as there are hot ladies around I don’t mind. I was married for 36 years but now I’m free. I’ve done my duty. Seven children, six grandchildren, five mothers, three wives. My oldest grandson is 36. I might be a great grandfather soon.’
Blimey. What must Christmas be like? ‘The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, man. One of my children just came over.’ He shows me a photograph of a young woman sitting on his knee. ‘Her mother is Nastassja Kinski. She’s 17. So sweet now. Smart, too.’
In a documentary a few years ago Jones’s children talked about how their father neglected them when they were younger. They also said they felt like surrogates to the famous performers in their father’s life. According to Jolie Jones, the eldest of his seven children: ‘Everything else was second, which wasn’t so right for us. But that’s how it was.’ When I remind him of this quote he says: ‘That might have been true one time, yeah, but not now, man. Like this little thing.’ He holds up the photograph again. ‘We’re friends. We tell each other bad jokes. She rubs my back for me.’
He had lunch yesterday with Stella McCartney and she reminded him of this daughter. ‘Stella has had a crush on me since she was little. So sweet!’ It has been a busy trip socially because he also met up with his old friend Sir Michael Caine. ‘I’ve known Michael since I did the music for The Italian Job. We’re exactly the same age, born the same hour. He said to me: “Q, God’s bowling in our alley.” We have a lot of friends in common, you see. And a lot of them have died recently. I’ve lost 174 friends in five years. That’s a lot of people, man.’
But is the death of a friend who is in old age easier to accept than that of someone middle-aged, like Michael Jackson? ‘No, not really. I’ve lost two brothers as well, from cancer. It’s never easier to accept just because they are older. I was in London when Michael died, which was hard for me. Not that I wanted to go to the funeral. I don’t go to them any more because I find them too depressing.’
The last one he went to, he says, was Marlon Brando’s in 2004. ‘I’d known Marlon since 1951. He gave my son acting lessons. Funniest s— you’ve ever heard. He was paying me back for getting his son a job with Michael Jackson. He gave my son advice on how to creep in the house when you are late back at 4am. You turn off the engine and push your car into the garage, then you take off your shoes so as your wife don’t hear you.’
He met most of his film-star friends while working on film scores. His approach to writing them, he says, was sometimes more calculating than instinctive. ‘Music in movies is all about dissonance and consonance, tension and release. Star Wars was all victorious consonance, what Spielberg and I called emotion lotion. With The Color Purple the music invades your soul. It was the first film I produced.’
And that was the film in which Oprah Winfrey, another of his old friends, got her first break. He was quite hands-on for that one, insisting that Spielberg be the director. He even managed to persuade Spielberg to recreate a scene from German cinema in which the rain symbolises tears.
‘I was a fan of Leni Riefenstahl, you see, one of the greatest black-and-white film-makers who ever lived. I had lunch with her before she died. She was Goebbels’s girlfriend, you know. Looked like Hedy Lamarr. Very beautiful. She told me she had 211 cameras for Triumph of the Will. I asked her why so many and she said: “Do you think I am going to say to Adolf, ‘Lets do another take’?”’
Riefenstahl also told him that the Third Reich was gathering pace at the same time Freud was doing his research into cocaine as anaesthesia, looking at how it shuts off the emotions and encourages you to be violent. ‘And she told me the whole Third Reich was on cocaine. That makes so much sense.’
Was he ever drawn into that world? ‘Damn right I was. Drugs in the world of the bebop musician? Are you kidding? Ray Charles was taking heroin in front of me when I was 13. I got tired of being left out so I would have a sniff, then two months later you are shooting up. That’s how you start. The body needs more and more. Ray was on heroin for 30 years. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis they were all stoned.
‘Marijuana was part of the culture. And a little toke now and then never hurt anyone. It enhances the senses. But as Bird himself said, if you can’t play it’s not going to help you.’ Does he still have a toke? ‘Sure man. Course.’ Any other drugs? ‘Back then I did, Benzedrine, and what are those things you pop?’
‘Amyl nitrate?’ He punches fists with me. ‘Yeah that’s it. You bin there, man. But I always had the will power to say that’s enough.’ After five days without sleep in the studio, presumably? ‘Tell me about it. For Thriller, you mean? But that was just smoking, man.’ And presumably Michael Jackson didn’t partake? ‘No way.’
When he was deprived of sleep like that for a week, how did he manage to think straight? Didn’t he feel he was going mad? ‘Yeah, but that’s where the creative stuff comes in, the unconscious mind. You do it because you have a deadline. You have to go five days and nights without sleep. The engineers who didn’t smoke couldn’t take it. They were being carried out on stretchers. It’s not the drugs that get the results though.’
When Jackson asked Jones to recommend a producer for his first solo album, Jones told him he would like to take a shot at it himself. The record company was ‘scared to death’ because ‘they said I was too jazzy’ but Off the Wall became a huge hit. They did Thriller after that, in two months. But the 1987 follow up, Bad, took 14 months too long in Jones’s view and the pair never worked on an album together again after that.
‘We did Thriller quickly and when you take too long, as we did with the next Michael Jackson album, you lose spontaneity. But I will always do one more take until you get it in the pocket, which is the right key and right tempo, the tempo God wants it in. That’s when you don’t notice anything standing out because everything is exactly where it should be in the arrangement, not too dense, not too airy. I learnt that from Basie when I was very young. It can be quite subjective though. I hear it in my head.’
If he was like Beethoven and went deaf could he still hear it? ‘Yes, because it’s all inside. Absolutely. If architecture is frozen music then music must be liquid architecture. You can almost see it; you don’t necessarily need to hear it to work out the orchestration. You’re hearing it inside.’
We talk about how Paul McCartney, another friend, composed Yesterday. He woke up with the tune fully formed in his head. ‘Tunes sometimes come to me like that, too, like Soul Bossa Nova [the 1962 track best known these days as the theme tune for Austin Powers]. Music is the only thing that engages the left and right brain simultaneously, it means the intellect is always tied to the emotion; the words are second to the melody, that is where the power of a song lies. Think of some of the great lyrics, they don’t mean s—: “Waiting round the bend, my Huckleberry friend”.
‘I’m a great believer in letting lyrics just flow out, wherever they come from. Get out of the way of yourself. The conscious mind is so full of s—. You have to use the subconscious mind. Don’t become a victim of paralysis by analysis. I like to hit it, and just go with the gut. Do something that gives you goose bumps.’
Bet there were plenty of those with Sinatra. ‘There sure were.’ What was he like to work with? Intimidating? ‘It takes a lot of guts to tell Sinatra what to do, man. You better have your s— together because he takes no prisoners and if you ask him to jump without a net you better have got it right. There is so much trust involved. He would love you, or roll over you with a truck and then reverse.’
He holds his hand and taps one of the rings on it. ‘This ring he gave me 40 years ago and I’ve never taken it off. It’s his family crest from Sicily. We would do all sorts of crazy s— in Hawaii. He used to love to fight, though he couldn’t fight for s—.’ He acted fighting well enough in his films. ‘Couldn’t for real though. His spirit was willing but…’ He shrugs.
What did they fight over? ‘Anything. You might say the wrong thing. Didn’t take much. Depended on the mood he was in.’ Presumably he treated someone as robust as Sinatra differently to someone more fragile, such as Michael Jackson? ‘Yeah, Michael was a baby. One way in which I did treat the two the same was that I realised early on you don’t tell a superstar in public they are getting it wrong. You have that conversation one-to-one, in private. If you push them up against the wall in front of other people they will want to defend their reputation. As they should. They work for their success. They know what they are doing, most of the time.’
Like Michael Jackson, Jones was a child prodigy. Does he feel he missed out on a childhood? ‘I didn’t have a mother so I was out there from the age of 11 working, running a clothes-cleaning service. Working for a pimp.’ Sounds like he had to grow up quickly. How old was he when he lost his virginity? ‘I must have been 12. When I was 15 I was with a 35-year-old girl. She was accused of rape but I said that ain’t no goddam rape, 35 is when a woman reaches her sexual peak. Men reach it much younger.’
At this point the PR from Harman International Industries interrupts and asks Jones if he would like to reconsider his answers to the questions about drugs and losing his virginity. To his credit, Jones just laughs and says: ‘Oh, we just doing free-form here, man. Don’t worry about all that.’
It takes a lot to make Quincy Jones worried, it seems, a perspective that perhaps comes from the hardships of his formative years. His mother was a multilingual Boston University graduate who became a bank executive before succumbing to schizophrenia. ‘She was a brilliant lady, but back then when a black woman had a mental illness they didn’t give a s—. Now they could cure what she had with vitamin B. Back then they just took her away in a straitjacket. I was seven years old. It was pretty traumatic. My stepmother beat the s— out of me and my brother, so when I was 12 I fought back and knocked the hell out of her. But you can’t sit and whine about that s—.
‘The statute of limitation has expired on all childhood traumas. Get it fixed and get on with your life. Some people waste a lifetime blaming all their woes on their childhood.’
His father was a carpenter to the two most notorious gangsters in black history, the Jones boys. ‘Capone ran them out of town when he found how much money they were making from the numbers racket. Seeing dead bodies and machine guns, that is what I remember most from my childhood in the South Side of Chicago. Drive-by shootings. It was the biggest black ghetto in the worst depression. There was nothing but gangsters around us and I wanted to be one, too.’
So what happened? ‘Then I came across a piano when I was 10. We had broken into an armoury and I saw it sitting there in the dark. When I touched the keys every cell of my body said: “This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.” That day I stopped wanting to be a gangster and started wanting to be a musician. That’s why I can identify with all those rappers I’ve worked with.
‘One of my daughters was engaged to Tupac, you know. He died in her arms. She almost got murdered, too. I became very close to Tupac, after a few confrontations when we first met. Him and Snoop Dog. The trouble with a lot of the rap fans today is they sacrifice their intellect to be cool. Dumb is not cool. Smart is sexy.’
Jones moved from the piano to the tuba, then the saxophone and finally the trumpet. At 14, he formed a band with the 16-year-old Ray Charles, playing throughout Washington state. ‘Ray and I were friends until the day he died. We held each other in our arms when he was in the hospital.’ Then, at 15, Jones won a scholarship to a music college in Boston, and later in the Fifties he played and studied in Paris (where he met Picasso, whose studio was across the street).
His trumpet playing came to an end in 1974 when he suffered two brain aneurysms and was close to death. Did that experience change him? He points to two long scars on his forehead, the result of surgery. ‘This scar is from my operation. I’ve got a metal plate in my head. I was paralysed on my left side for a while and had to stop playing the trumpet. It changed my personality to the extent that it opened me up a lot, because before that I used to hold things in. I’m more on the surface emotionally now.’
After giving up the trumpet he concentrated on his conducting and arranging and became the first black man to be a senior record executive at a major label. ‘In the America I grew up in there was apartheid, but I went to Paris and it taught me there could be a balance between black and white. When Ray Charles and I were kids in Seattle we didn’t have the black role models that young black people have today, like P Diddy and Oprah and Barack.’
Did he ever imagine back then in Seattle that it would be possible for a black man to become president of the United States in his lifetime? ‘No, never. I remember sitting at home in my kitchen in March 2005 with Oprah and Michelle and Barack and even then we couldn’t imagine it ever happening. I told Michelle I was going with Hilary because I thought she had a real chance. I wanted to remain loyal to Hilary and Bill, who is a big music fan, but my heart was with Barack. At the Iowa primary when Barack won the nomination, he came to see me in my suite and we hugged.’
Not only a friend to the stars but to presidents too, and a role model to black Americans everywhere, though you’d never guess it from his unassuming manner. It is time for Jones to end his ‘free-form’ and fly back to his home in LA. And I am happy to report that when he says goodbye it is with another gentle fist punch rather than a handshake.