Back in the early summer of this year, I attended the 85th birthday celebration concert of the one and only Quincy Jones at The O2 in London. Various singers sang various songs from the vast career of music that ‘Q’ (as old Blue Eyes himself, Francis Albert Sinatra, nicknamed him) has been involved in.
Quincy was also on stage himself and he was interviewed between performances and it was then, hearing the full story unravel, that I just realised what a career it has been.
He was born in 1933 on Chicago, South Side. His father, also called Quincy, worked as a carpenter for the notorious gangsters the Jones Boys. As a result, the young Quincy was exposed to stabbings, shootings and murders and the money that could be earned by doing all three on a daily basis. It was a tough start and no mistake.
His early exposure to music came from the neighbourhood around him, from the church and the next door apartments.
Moving to Seattle after the Second World War, Jones studied trumpet and arranging at Garfield High School.
In the early 50s, Quincy gained a scholarship to Seattle University, before moving on quickly to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He meets and becomes firm friends with Ray Charles – Charles eventually leaves Jones with a five month long a heroin habit – and he also gains the attention of vibraphone player and band leader Lionel Hampton, and is offered the position as arranger and a trumpet spot aged just 18.
Life on the road is an education itself, with hard drinking men and drug addicts throughout the band. Reaching Detroit, the band always bought their weed off one ‘Detroit Red.’ He later to became Malcolm X once he cleaned up and converted to the Nation of Islam following yet another prison sentence.
The Hampton band plays at the inauguration of president Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 and Quincy’s pro career is well and truly off and running.
1956 finds him playing trumpet behind a 21-year-old Elvis in an early TV broadcast for CBS in New York and soon after he is arranging songs for among others Basie, Ellington, old friend Brother Ray and Sassy Sarah Vaughan.
He produced and arranged the original ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ for Big Maybelle in 1957.
His own recording career kicks off with a deal for ABC Paramount and later that year sees him studying composition in Paris.
He first works with Frank Sinatra in 1958 in Monaco at a charity event for Princess Grace and they would go on to work with each other up until Sinatra’s death in 1998.
Later, astronaut Buzz Aldrin played their 1964 version of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ on the actual moon in 1969. Today, Q wears a signet ring given to him by the Sinatra family upon the death of Frank.
Quincy became active in the civil rights campaign of Dr Martin Luther King from 1960 and has been politically active ever since.
His tune ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ from 1962 would go on to have a long shelf life, and is perhaps best known for its appearance in the ‘Austin Powers’ film series.
1964 finds him becoming vice president of Mercury Records, the first Afro American to achieve that position in the industry and later that year he begins his soundtrack career with the film ‘The Pawnbroker.’ At least forty films follow, including ‘In The Heat of the Night’, ‘The Italian Job’, ‘They Call Me Mr Tibbs’, ‘The Getaway’, ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’, ‘The Anderson Tapes’ and ‘The Colour Purple.’
Famous TV themes would follow including those for ‘Ironside’, ‘Roots’, and ‘The Bill Cosby Show.’
In among all of that, he continued as the musical arranger for Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine as well as old friends, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
With his producer’s hat on, early work included the Tubby Hayes album ‘Return Visit’ in 1962 and the US number one pop hit ‘Its My Party’ by Lesley Gore.
1978 saw him working his production magic on the soundtrack of ‘The Wiz’ the all black adaption of the classic The Wizard of Oz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
It was whilst working with Jackson on ‘The Wiz’ that they decided to team up for Jackson’s 1979 solo album ‘Off The Wall.’ Going on to sell 20 million copies, it was the start of a beautiful relationship. Next up was ‘Thriller’ in 1982, which sold over 100 million copies, becoming the biggest selling album of all time. Their final album work together was ‘Bad’ in 1987.
1985 sees him arranging and producing ‘We Are The World’ in response to the Ethiopian famine disaster. Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Brother Ray, Paul Simon and Tina Turner all make a vocal appearance.
His production company ‘Quincy Jones Productions’ discovers the actor Will Smith via the show ‘ The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ first aired in 1990.
Over the last 30 years or so, Quincy jones has been as busy as ever, recording, developing, producing, and writing – whether for film, theatre or TV. At 85 he shows no sign of retiring.
One thing I noticed at the O2 concert was the variety of crowd in attendance. Black, white, young, old, male, female. Thinking about it later, it all made sense. This man has crossed over in all genres, be it rock, pop or jazz. I would hazard a guess that most music loving households have something that the hand of Q has been involved in.
‘Life’s an amazing journey, isn’t it, man?’ he once said. ‘Every day I think about it. It’s just something else. I love every step. I appreciate all of it. Every drop.…’
Amen brother Q.
The Mumper of SE5