Published: July, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
When Off The Wall
was a good thing:
A snapshot of Michael Jackson's (recording, not legal) dream team

By Michael Fortes

So the trial is over, Michael Jackson has been acquitted, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there will be no more press coverage of Michael The Freak. Of all the questions could ask of the media coverage, the conduct of the jurors, the credibility of the accuser, blah blah blah… we may start to wonder:

How did we become so interested in the first place?

Lest we forget, once upon a time, Michael Jackson was singer, songwriter and performer with a lot of promise. He even had some critical acclaim once, and sold a more than respectable amount of records too. MJ's solo success really started to take off after he began a working relationship with the incomparable Quincy Jones. When MJ teamed up with Q, we all started to listen, and if we weren't there the first time around, we'd hear about it sooner or later.

Was it as good as we first believed? Pull out your copy of Off The Wall, or borrow someone else's, and give it a listen. What you'll hear is an outstanding pop record, one that has become timeless, even moreso than its mega-selling follow-up, Thriller. What made this record so good?

Aside from the peerless skills of Quincy Jones as producer, and Michael's talents as a singer and even as a songwriter on three of the album's stand-out tracks, one of the elements that made Off The Wall so amazing was the pool of talent that went into its creation. This pool was far greater than what MJ and Q alone had to offer, and the talent involved was so strong that there was little need to put the contributors' names in prominent positions on the album art in order to boost its credibility, a la Santana's Supernatural.

Here's a rundown of some of the key contributors who made Off The Wall a success. Michael might not have warranted 1200 news people covering his trial were he not given such a firm foundation for his signature grunts and squeals by the following:

Rod Temperton. As a key songwriter with the British funk/soul/R&B combo Heatwave, Temperton established himself as a major talent with the hits "Boogie Nights," "The Groove Line," and the quiet storm classic "Always And Forever." Heatwave's success was beginning to wane by the time Temperton was tapped for material on Off The Wall, but his songwriting chops were still in tip top shape. His contributions to Off The Wall included "Turn This Disco Out," the hit title track, and the number one "Rock With You," one of Michael Jackson's greatest singles, on which he convincingly plays the part of a clean-cut yet seductive potential lover. Temperton would later pen the title track to Off The Wall's monster follow-up LP, as well as that album's tracks "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady In My Life."

Stevie Wonder. "Little" Stevie Wonder was like Michael Jackson in that he too started his career during his pre-teen years, eventually causing a stir with his infectious single "Fingertips, Part 2" back in 1963 when he was only 12 years old. Stevie had been in the habit of having his songs recorded by other major talents throughout the 1970s, and as the decade drew to a close, he likely pulled in some big bucks when Michael recorded Stevie's "I Can't Help It." It was included on side 2 of Off The Wall, continuing the tradition of Motown artists covering each other's tunes (even though Michael was now with Epic). Stevie would also turn up on Bad in 1987, singing a duet with Michael on "Just Good Friends."

Paul McCartney. Much has been made of Paul McCartney's relationship with Michael Jackson over the years, mostly having to do with the end of their friendship following Michael's purchase of the Beatles' publishing catalog. One wonders though, before the two even met, what Paul must have thought of Michael's recording of the Wings tune "Girlfriend." In the Wings version, found on the 1978 LP London Town, Paul sings in a goofy, awkward falsetto. He reverts to his natural tenor during the bridge, which is the Wings recording's saving grace. MJ and Q dispensed with the bridge, whose lyrics ("till the river stops a-flowin'" etc.) didn't sound like Michael Jackson material anyway. Michael's vocal on what remained was a drastic improvement over the original, perhaps one of the only such existing improvements on a Paul McCartney song. Paul must have been impressed, for he would turn up on Thriller, dueting with Michael on "The Girl Is Mine." Not only that, Michael returned the favor with the "Say Say Say" duet on Paul's Pipes Of Peace album in 1983. It would be Paul's last number one single.

Patti Austin. Patti Austin had been working mostly as a jazz singer in the years leading up to when she sang "It's The Falling In Love" with Michael on side 2 of Off The Wall. Previously, she had appeared on Q's Sounds… And Stuff Like That! LP in 1978, and she recorded her own LPs on the CTI label starting in 1976. Following the huge success of Off The Wall, she was able to leverage that success to eventually land a major top 40 hit, the James Ingram duet "Baby Come To Me."

David Foster and Carole Bayer-Sager. This pair was responsible for "It's The Falling In Love," a song which could have been Off The Wall's 5th hit single, had Epic chosen to release it. Bayer-Sager was a well-established hit songwriter by the time of Off The Wall. She could boast such achievements as The Mindbenders' "A Groovy Kind Of Love" and Leo Sayer's "When I Need You," as well as co-writes on Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud" and Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better." David Foster was just getting started - the same year Off The Wall was released, Earth Wind & Fire also released their single "After The Love Has Gone," which Foster co-wrote, and for which he would receive a Grammy Award. He would continue to be, for better or for worse, an omnipresent force in pop music throughout the '80s and early '90s.

Louis Johnson. Along with brother George, Louis made some major contributions to the world of funk as The Brothers Johnson. Most significantly, the Brothers took Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23" into the upper-reaches of Billboard's pop singles chart in 1977. However, most people have probably heard Louis dexterously slinking and slapping his way around the bass on Off The Wall tracks like "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," "Working Day And Night," "Get On The Floor," and, well, every song on the album except for "Rock With You." As part of Q's team, Louis would reappear on Thriller. He'd even pop up again on one tune from the 1991 Dangerous album, the minor hit "Who Is It," long after Q and MJ stopped working together.

As an aside, a note about the album cover: the original cover for Off The Wall, featuring a very dark-skinned Michael Jackson sporting a suit and an afro against a brick wall, was striking at the time for the way it reminded us that Michael was no longer the little boy fronting the Jackson 5. Now, it's striking in that it reminds us that Michael isn't the handsome young black man he used to be. In fact, this original cover is a collector's item now, since all copies of Off The Wall manufactured since 1991 have been issued with the view of Michael's glowing white socks on the front, which were seen on the back cover of the original LP.