“About my one on one experience with Michael Jackson…”Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is burning up the airwaves and is a monster hit worldwide. Michael Jackson is on a major tour marking his first major solo release and his last appearances with The Jacksons. Michael Jackson was coming to New York City that day for events tied in to his major concert at Nassau Coliseum that night. The person who was responsible for moving Michael Jackson around town and taking him to radio was yours truly.
Michael Jackson is scheduled to arrive at one of New York City’s largest hotels at around midday. I arrive an hour early in a limo to make sure the connection is smooth. For reasons out of Michael Jackson’s control, his flight from Los Angeles is delayed and he runs into extra heavy midday traffic coming from Kennedy Airport to midtown Manhattan. So, Michael Jackson arrives an hour and a half late. He and The Jacksons look totally drained and exhausted. I knew that look from my own touring, but I gained a greater appreciation for that level of drained when I did more extensive world touring a few years later. So I met all of The Jacksons (which didn’t include Jermaine at the time) in the lobby of the hotel, but there were no handshakes, because they were simply too drained. We all nodded at each other and Michael gave me the look that said - okay, let’s go…
It took about 15 minutes for me to escort Michael Jackson through the lobby of the hotel to the side entrance where I had the limo waiting. Yes, the hotel is that big and I took Michael on a route that had the least people leading to the side entrance. It is just me and Michael - no security or management, etc.. .We get to the side entrance and the limo is not there. Why? Because the limo-driver was making his 100th trip circling around the block. So I hide Michael near the doorway and then in a few minutes the limo arrives.
We jump into the limo and proceed through extra heavily congested New York City weekday afternoon traffic. I ask Michael can I get him anything - food, drinks, etc…Michael could have asked for and/or demanded anything - and he didn’t even request a cup of water. So it’s just Michael and I in the limo, and you want to know what we talked about. Well, the answer is everything and nothing. It was one of the easiest flowing conversations that I have ever had in my entire life. It is easier to say what we didn’t talk about. We didn’t talk about music, the music business, his album, politics, or sports, etc.. We did talk about life and specifically his observations of various aspects of life.
Some people, including Michael himself, have called him shy. I would call him observant. When you’re observing and listening and taking things in, you are not talking as much - so people think that you’re shy - when actually you are observing, learning, and selecting the optimum time to speak. Michael’s conversation was not about stating his philosophies, but more about stating observations and how these observations could make one think and/or feel. I would say that Michael Jackson had a unique one-of-a-kind intellectual curiosity - he was curious about everything.
About an hour later, we picked up the professional photographer who was coming with us to radio. The photographer gets in the front seat of the limo, says hello and then starts to assemble his camera. Once his camera is assembled, he points it at me and Michael in the back seat of the limo. I instruct him not to shoot us so Michael can relax. Looking back, that would be a cool photo to have now, but I was looking out for Michael’s well-being. Michael sees the camera and starts this deep photography discussion. I was in the discussion for about a minute, then it got so deep that I just dropped out and that’s when the photographer looked at me and I looked at him with the looks saying check this out - Michael Jackson is knee deep in photography discourse. I asked Michael if he was a photographer and he said “No, I just like photography!!!”.
My guess is that wherever Michael was living at any given time, he was privately photographing nature and things in his house, because one couldn’t know what he knew from just listening to photographers. But some people just know things, and this is MJ we are talking about - so, who knows!!!
So, Michael continues engaging in this very deep photography conversation with the photographer where he mentions something that the photographer said he needed to look into further. This went on for about 5 minutes, and the only thing that stopped that topic was that the photographer said something that Michael didn’t know and Michael got quiet.
Let me translate how deep Michael’s photography discussion was: imagine if someone says in the middle of a general conversation - pataflaflas swiss 6 accented parafliddle lesson 25 around the set groove. You would not only have to be a drummer, but a drummer with not just a knowledge of rudiments, but an advanced knowledge of rudiments that one can apply and play around the drumset and make them groove to know what that person was talking about.
It is now 4 pm and we are headed towards WBLS FM to do an interview with Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker. Frankie and I agreed to not mention Michael Jackson’s visit on the air until shortly before we would arrive. So we have WBLS on in the limo and at 4:10 pm Frankie says we have a superstar who will be stopping by the station within the next hour - stay tuned. At 4:20 pm, he says Michael Jackson will be here soon to say hello and discuss his new album.
At 4:40 pm, only 20 minutes later, we are approaching the station and there’s several hundred people at the entrance and the crowd is expanding by the second. So, I tell the limo driver to go around the block and we will try to go in through the side entrance. Part of the crowd noticed a side entrance and gathered there, so we did a wide pass of the side entrance and then passed the main entrance for a 2nd time. I tell the limo driver to go around the block another way. Then as we are approaching the main entrance again it looks unmanageable, but I realized that it was only going to get worse and I had to get Michael back to his hotel in time for his 1 hour trip to Nassau Coliseum that night for his concert…I tell the photographer to put his camera away, because I need him to help me get Michael through this crowd and into the radio station.
So, with the photographer on his right and me on his left we shield Michael going into the radio station. This should be the end of this part of the story, but this is Michael Jackson. We are walking into the station and the crowd seems calm until some people realize that they are a few feet away from Michael Jackson and maybe they could even touch him. This is when people of all races, ages, and lifestyles, etc. go into a frenzy. There’s superstar frenzy and then there’s Michael Jackson frenzy. As we are going into the radio station, Michael Jackson turns to his left, where I am, to wave at the crowd; then at that moment a young teenage girl and a grown man reach out at the same time to touch Michael’s arm and - instead - they both ended up grabbing my arm and literally almost tore off my clothes. If I turned another way by a half an inch, my clothes would have been ripped for the rest of the night.
We get Michael into WBLS safely. He does a great, but brief interview with Frankie Crocker, and then I get him out of the station safely and into the limo and back to his hotel on time. I actually have a photo of the great Frankie Crocker and the great Michael Jackson together on that day.
I saw Michael Jackson again that night before the show, onstage, after the show, and at a special after party. I witnessed at least 3 gears of this über-superstar: one gear with me one on one in the hotel & in the limo; one gear going into and leaving WBLS & his character in the radio interview with Frankie Crocker; and the Michael Jackson gear onstage where one had no idea how drained he was that day and where his dancing and stage movements set up his next fierce vocal & dance fireworks the way a great drummer’s fills set up the next exciting element of a super show. More needs to be said about the inner drummer in Michael Jackson, and that it just doesn’t manifest itself in his dancing, but is also very prominent in his vocal phrasing and percussive vocal attack. But this is something I might talk about at another time.
Michael Jackson was a very nice guy and a very down-to-earth guy (…). There is a lot more that I can say about every aspect of that day with Michael Jackson, but this is what I can offer at this time.
“Off The Wall” went on to do well and sell over 50 million units worldwide to date. There were 5 singles released from “Off The Wall” and their success paved the way for the release of a record number of 7 singles out of a total of 9 songs on Thriller - the greatest selling album of all time. I wrote a memo that was cc-ed to the President and all the senior management of CBS Records which discussed Michael Jackson, the events of that day, his album, and his future potential providing information that had broad & far reaching implications and ramifications, but this too is another discussion for another day and time.
Fast forward several years later and I run into Michael Jackson in New York City in a non-entertainment industry environment. I was surprised that he was not with any bodyguards, security, etc. because this was a few years after Thriller and just before Bad was released. I say to Michael “I don’t know if you remember me, but we spent the day together in a limo when “Off The Wall” came out.’ So he gives me a look like he barely remembers me and I look him in the eye and smile, then laugh and say “With all the people you’ve had to deal with throughout the world especially since the release of Thriller, I am not even slightly offended if you barely remember me”. Then he smiled and laughed with an expression that said this guy understands.
So, we talked and he asked me if I was still with the record company, and I said ‘No, I am out here doing “the drum thing” on world tours and recordings’, etc…His response was a very positive one word that was the equivalent of saying “Cool !!!”. The conversation went on briefly and I said that I recommended the release of “Rock With You” as a 2nd single from “Off The Wall”. We talked a little bit more and then he shook my hand and turned to walk away. He took one step and just as I was about to walk away, he turned around and said “Thank You!!!!” then he smiled and left.
In this brief conversation that day, Michael was the same nice and down-to-earth guy he was with me in the limo several years earlier. This was very amazing considering the success and impact of Thriller worldwide with the young girls in a frenzy and fainting and having to be hospitalized, etc…The nice and down-to-earth guy who said “Thank You!!!!” to me when he didn’t have to say anything, the über-superstar, and what I can only call “the phenomenon known as Michael Jackson” - that’s the Michael Jackson that I will always remember. Hopefully, the information in this feature will help others to remember him this way too.”
~ Ray Newton, American multi-stylist drummer, percussionist, and performer.
I was Googling some images of Michael’s Neverland Valley Ranch, and I saw this photo, which I had not seen before. I started thinking about Neverland, and how the amusement park got so much attention, but there were so many other amazing things to discover. The big red barn was partially converted into something called the snake barn. (Some of the maps seem to call it a Serpentorium, but it was always the snake barn to me.) There were many cool “surprises” in the snake barn, but one of my favorites was a sound effect originally created in my front yard. Let me explain. Once you were inside the snake barn, there were about a dozen very large displays on either side of the guest, housing the various snakes. The lights were fairly dim, so your focus was on the snakes. We had narratives describing the snakes, and a soft layer of cricket sounds to give heighten the experience. Every eight minutes or so a pre-recorded sound of rustling grass would zip across the room through a series of speakers along the floor, from back to front. It was very fast and the guests had no idea it was coming. (I recorded a large ice chest being dragged through the ivy in my front yard). The result was often very funny, with guests thinking they were hearing a huge snake rustling past their feet! Michael loved the idea, and he would laugh his head off when he saw someone startled by our illusion. We used hidden (and not so hidden) sounds on various parts of the ranch, but the snake barn was a lot of fun to build. More stories, memories, music and fun in New York next month. See you there!
When 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan and producer John Hamlin toured a secret warehouse where Michael Jackson’s personal effects are stored, they found a surreal collection of statues, arcade games, and crystal-encrusted clothing— but the most fascinating item they found was a simple handwritten note.