Ray Newton and his influence on Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall"
This story has never been told before in any media or verbally and there is only one person on the planet who can share with you many of the details for this feature. Allow me to set the stage.
I was in what turned out to be a key position for CBS Records. What is now Sony Music Entertainment was the merged Sony BMG, and Sony BMG was Sony Music, and Sony Music was CBS Records. In all of these forms of the company there was the Epic & Associated Labels side of the company and the Columbia and affiliated labels, etc. side of the company. Most people who currently or formerly worked for this company, with the exception of the BMG labels, generally worked exclusively for either the Epic side of the company or the Columbia side of the company - not both. I was in an area of the company where at that time I worked on recordings by and/or directly with artists on both the Epic side of the company and the Columbia side of the company, and on recordings by and/or directly with artists on all labels promoted, marketed and/or distributed by CBS Records. This included many of the top names and superstars in music and entertainment then and now.
The position that I was in also encompassed working on recordings and/or directly with artists in pop and rock that had crossover potential (i.e. Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, etc.), and in various other genres including but not limited to blues, gospel, urban, jazz, latin (i.e. The Fania All Stars, etc.), etc.. So it was in this position that I worked on Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" album. Let me say now that the specific circumstances that I am about to convey should be viewed as just what happened in these scenarios and nothing less than a positive look back and reflection on any individuals and/or record companies (major labels, etc.) in general.
Let the facts of the story begin:The first single released from the "Off The Wall" album was "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". This record was the obvious choice for launching this unique first album of Michael Jackson's new distinct solo career. This song is what Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones wanted, and what the record company agreed to and wanted. I was involved in a discussion among select national personnel from across the country regarding the selection of a 2nd single from this album that would continue the successful momentum created by "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". I spoke first and recommended "Rock With You". I stated that it was a very melodic song with a smooth melody and very singable hook that would have broad appeal and crossover appeal, etc.. There is a little more that I said and a lot more that I didn't feel the need to say. The across the board response was that they were not accepting of this recommendation of "Rock With You" for a 2nd single or even a single at all. In fairness to the others involved in this discussion, I should say that the "Off The Wall" album was so exceptional that out of the total of 10 songs on the album 8 were potential singles. For those reading this feature see if you can figure out which 2 songs were not potential singles. Many of the comments that did not support "Rock With You" were just opinions but one factor that they stated that did need to be considered was the tempo of "Rock With You". This was the disco era and "Rock With You" had a slower tempo than the average disco record on the radio at that time. I acknowledged that the tempo of "Rock With You" was slower than the average disco record of that era but I then stated that the tempo was not so much slower that it would prevent this record from being a hit. At the time I was not factoring in the drummer in me, but looking back I realize now that they were disagreeing with someone who along with various other relevant experience in his background had extensive experience as a professional drummer with an in-depth knowledge of and feel for how tempos work in various situations.
The discussion continued... What you need to know is that when you are asked about records as singles or otherwise within a record company framework, they are not asking you what you like or what you think your friends will like. They are asking you "is it a record?" which is record company code for "is it a hit?". As the discussion continued all of the other 7 potential single choices were mentioned. The leading contenders ended up being Off The Wall (the title track), She's Out Of My Life, and Working Day and Night. Off The Wall and Working Day and Night had the right tempos and energy for the disco era. Everyone agreed including me that She's Out of My Life should be a single, but because it was a slow ballad it was believed that it would probably be more effective as a 3rd or 4th single from the album. I listened intently to everyone's comments and realized that no song got the support of more than one other person and that there was no consensus. Even though no one else supported my recommendation of "Rock With You" as the 2nd single, I reiterated that I still recommend "Rock With You". The discussion ended with no consensus and no decision on what will be the 2nd single. The final statement was that we will let all of you know what is the decision for the next single. A few days later I receive a telephone call which I thought would be to inform me what the 2nd single was, and instead I was informed that it was discussed among senior management and there was still no consensus. The leading contender songs were discussed and it was mentioned to senior management that I was the only one who recommended "Rock WithYou". So they said to me that it was decided that they wanted to get Frankie Crocker's recommendation for the 2nd single, and I should go see Frankie right away and tell them what he says.
Frankie Crocker had a long history of years of predicting hits and making hits happen. Frankie Crocker was then the Program Director and star air personality of WBLS FM in New York City. At this time WBLS FM was the number 1 station in the number 1 market in the U.S.A., and the number 1 market in the world, across all formats. Frankie Crocker was then the most influential Program Director and Air Personality in the world. If Frankie Crocker programmed a record in a significant rotation on WBLS FM (and related stations) that record would become a hit in New York City then a hit nationally in the U.S.A. and then subsequently a hit worldwide.
I took the "Off The Wall" album to Frankie Crocker that day. He was on the air when I got there so I told the Music Director that CBS Records wants to know what Frankie Crocker says should be the 2nd single from the "Off The Wall" album. I told her that my choice was "Rock With You" but I am the only one with that choice. I said don't tell Frankie what my choice is, let's just see what he says. Frankie Crocker listened to various tracks from the album while he was on the air. 40 minutes later, Frankie says "Rock With You", no ifs ands or buts. But then again this is Frankie Crocker - very decisive.
I report back to senior management that Frankie Crocker stated "Rock With You" should be the 2nd single. The initial response was surprise, hesitancy, and reluctance - but - it was accepted."Rock With You" was pressed as the 2nd single from the "Off The Wall" album. I brought it to Frankie Crocker and he was the first at radio to receive it. Frankie played it right away, it became a big hit, and the rest as they say is history.
There is a lot more to this story but this is all anyone will get from me for now. It should be noted that no one really knows what a hit is until a mass of the people buy a record and request a record, etc.. But there are rare events when the combination of one's ears, gut, instincts, talents, etc. leads one to predict hits even against the odds. This was my situation at that time. If events like this only happened once then I wouldn't be telling this story. But there were several other major hit records that I predicted and took the key actions that significantly contributed to these records' success. Each record has it's own unique story and not even the artists themselves know these stories or the full stories behind some of their major hits.Before we move on let's allow everyone to determine for themselves the impact of the decision to release "Rock With You" as the 2nd single from the "Off The Wall" album. Remember that the goal was to select a 2nd single that would continue the momentum started by "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". "Rock With You" went to #1 on the Pop chart and to #1 on the R&B chart, and it stayed at #1 for 4 weeks on the Pop chart and at #1 for 6 weeks on the R&B chart. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" stayed at #1 on the Pop chart for 1 week and at #1 on the R&B chart for 5 weeks. "Rock With You" stayed at #1 on the Pop and the R&B charts longer than "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". The 3rd single Off The Wall and the 4th single She's Out of My Life went to only #10 on the Pop chart and #5 and #43 respectively on the R&B chart. (All chart references refer to the Billboard charts.)
Looking back one would say that the release of "Rock With You" as the 2nd single: contributed to the publishing of Rod Temperton (hit songwriter, producer, etc., and songwriter of "Rock With You"; formerly of Heatwave, etc.); contributed to the continual popularity of one of the most famous drum intros of all time by John "J.R." Robinson; and also contributed to this song becoming one of the most loved songs by Michael Jackson. Since the passing of Michael Jackson "Rock With You" continues to this day, and I project for some time to come, to be one of the most played Michael Jackson songs on television, radio, and in various other media.
This story epitomizes to me the meaning of my multiplatinum record plaque awarded for outstanding contributions to the achievement of over 4 million in sales for the "Off The Wall" album, etc. from the Epic side of CBS Records. (The plaque was done in a gold color but it represents multiplatinum sales (1 million in sales is platinum).)
About my one on one experience with Michael Jackson. This scenario is related to the story that I just told you. It was a few weeks earlier than the aforementioned events while I was in the position with CBS Records and "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. Michael didn't check in or anything. The Jacksons just said that they all needed to and were going to get a little sleep which, of course, didn't make Michael feel any better about what he had to do. There was no sense of sibling rivalry or jealousy -only support for Michael's solo career.
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 limodriver 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. So 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 thé 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, but I did see him flex his superstar power later that day. This is entirely another story. 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.
Note: At CBS Records, Ray Newton made other hit predictions and took the actions that significantly contributed: to the success of the reverse/reverse (yes 2 reverses) crossover of the Kenny Loggins' hit "This Is It"; to the release of the Teddy Pendergrass/Stephanie Mills hit duet "Feel The Fire"; and to the igniting of the success and crossover of Rodney Franklin's "The Groove"; and also to several other hit records. Each of these hit records has their own unique story and who knows if Ray Newton will ever tell these stories and/or these full stories. Time will tell.
Ray Newton went on to be the drummer on various major world tours and recordings. After several years as a touring and recording musician he was recruited to work at another major label in a high national position, which encompassed international reach. A few years later Ray Newton moved into his current flow as a world touring and recording drummer, etc. - and - through the years he has received other major awards including RIAA certified gold record plaques, etc. while continually adding to his list of achievements.
A small sampling of Ray Newton's worldwide true multistylist drum credits include The Duke Ellington Orchestra, The Village People, Snow, Melba Moore, The Bongos with Fred Schneider, leader of The B 52s, The Cosby Show, and Ray Newton's DEZIIRE, etc..
Ray Newton uses the Vater New Orleans Jazz Nylon, Whip, Monster Brush, Splashstick Lite and many other Vater products.