MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
News of Michael Jackson's death sent shockwaves around the world. We'll hear from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton who is in Dakar, Senegal. But first, I'm joined by - singer Howard Hewett, he was formerly with the popular R&B group Shalimar. We also hope to hear from music producer Kenny Gamble, who produced Michael Jackson when he first left Motown Records. But first, Howard Hewett. He joins us from his home in California. Howard, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome. Howard, are you with us? Howard Hewett?
HOWARD HEWETT: Yeah.
MARTIN: Howard Hewett, how are you? Thank you for joining us.
HEWETT: How are you? I wish it was under better circumstances...
MARTIN: A difficult...
HEWETT: ...for having me.
MARTIN: ...a difficult day I'm sure. How did you meet Michael Jackson?
HEWETT: Oh, man. I met Michael years and years ago for the first time, you know, when I was with the group Shalimar. We used to play...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING OF THROAT)
HEWETT: ...excuse me, we used to play Disneyland a lot. We used to play Disneyland a very many times. Mickey Mouse was a great employer at that time, you know. And so, Mike used to come to the shows when we would play there. And I mean, you know, he would stand backstage and watch the show. And he was really interested in what we call, what we used to call the backslide, you know, Jeffrey Daniels would perform the backslide all the way across the stage on the first opening song that we would do. And, you know, then he started coming around and wanted to learn how to do that. He actually hired Jeffrey to come to the Havenhurst...
HEWETT: ...house and teach him how to do the backslide?
MARTIN: Well you're telling us something important, I think, which was that he was a performer who liked to learn from other performers. Is that right, despite that he was already a huge star at that point?
HEWETT: Right, I mean, you know, any huge performer, any performer really wants to learn from - because nothing is new under the sun. I mean, I don't care what you do, you know, that this has been done before, you know, it's just the way that you package it and make it your own. And you can only learn that from different, you know, performers and stuff. He was definitely aware of that the whole situation and wanting to, you know, improve himself at all times.
MARTIN: At all times. Kenny Gamble is with us now. Kenny Gamble is of course, half of the legendary producing duo Gamble & Huff. He is with us now from Philadelphia.
KENNY GAMBLE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Mr. Gamble, thank you so much for joining us. I'm sure it's a difficult time for you as well. And the Jackson - Michael Jackson and his brothers joined you shortly after they left Motown...
MARTIN: ...in 1976. First of all, why did they leave? And what were their gifts? Why were you interested in working with them?
GAMBLE: Well, I think that the reason that they left Motown was that they were growing as a group. And you know, everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. So I think they came to an impasse. And I think they wanted to be more creative. They wanted to write and produce and by coming with - and the fact they signed with CBS - we were affiliated with CBS at that time. And they asked us to record them and one of the things that they wanted to do was to record some of their own music. And so, we had a wonderful time working with them, showing them our techniques. And they had a whole lot of new techniques. And we had a great time working with them.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask each of you this, and Kenny Gamble, I'm going to start with you. What were his gifts as a performer? And I think that - now I think so much of our conversation about him has tied up with his personal eccentricities...
MARTIN: ...and behavior that at least appears to be questionable. Even though, as we know, the whole matter was adjudicated. But - as a performer, could you talk about what it is that made him special?
GAMBLE: Well to me, I think that he was, first of all, he was a natural tenor. And there's very few natural tenors in, you know, you have a lot of people who are falsettos. Like (unintelligible) was a falsetto singer, (unintelligible) from the Delfonics and so forth. But he was - actually he was a natural tenor.
(SOUNDBITE OF THROAT CLEARING)
GAMBLE: And that means that he was able to hit notes and with clarity. And his voice was changing during that time but it didn't change too much because he was just becoming more of an adult. But I think as an artist in the studio that he was very aware of the new technology. And I learned a lot from him in the studio myself because he had an approach to recording his voice that he wanted to try. And I said, well, go ahead, let me see what's you want to do. And he kept overdubbing his voice, overdubbing his voice. And that's just was something that I had never done before. And up until that point, I had never heard of anybody recording a voice(unintelligible)...
MARTIN: Mr. Gamble, I'm going to ask, if we could sort of call you back because your phone line is deteriorating. Howard Hewett, I'm going to go back to you. As a person who is in the same profession - touring, performing, writing, producing. In fact, you produced "Pretty Young Thing" with Michael, as I understand it. And talk to me, if you would, about his gifts as a performer, as a producer.
HEWETT: We worked on "P.Y.T." and a couple of others tracks on the "Thriller" album. James Ingram actually wrote and co-produced "P.Y.T." on the "Thriller" album. But I mean, just like the question you just asked Kenny, I mean, you know, Michael was the most prolific, dynamic performer of our time. I mean in his innovation, his ability to like kind of morph into whatever he was doing and whatever he was working on at the time was like, was incredible.
And that's one of the things that really frustrated me in the last, you know, 10-15 years of Mike's career is like, you know, when you talked about Michael Jackson, then most people focus and immediately focused on the idiosyncrasies, on the crazy stuff that was going on around Michael and that. And that kind of overshadowed the fact that this cat was, I mean, just like his other his album, this cat was bad. I mean as far as performance-wise, like Kenny was saying, his ability as far as vocally is concerned because as a vocalist, one of the most important things is to be able to see where you want to go.
And a lot of vocalists can see where they want to go but they can't get there. And Mike was one of those vocalists that could see where he wanted to go and he could get there. And I remembered sitting in a studio while we were, you know, a bunch of times while he was working on the "Thriller" album. And, you know, just watching him in there with Bruce (unintelligible) with Quincy.
And, you know, just to watch him work was incredible. I mean incredible. And that's what, like I said, that's what really, really kind of, you know, frustrated me with Michael. And with everything as far as the last 10-15 years or so, that people would focus in on the negative rather than the fact that, you know, this cat as far as musically is concerned. But, you know, that's understandable. Because, you know, that's just human nature. So, you know, you just chalk it up to human nature a lot of times.
MARTIN: Kenny Gamble, I was asking Professor Mark Anthony Neal and Harriette Cole this earlier. I'd like to ask you, as a person who's worked with so many legends, and is one yourself, if you don't mind my saying so, what do you think Michael Jackson's legacy will be?
GAMBLE: Well, I think his legacy will be one of humility. And probably the greatest performer of our time. And it's just his kindness. And the messages that was in his music, you know, "We Are the World." I mean, he was always thinking about other people. And so, I think, I think that that will be his legacy. I was listening to - is that Howard Hewett on the phone?
GAMBLE: Hey, Howard, how are you?
HEWETT: Good. Kenny, how you doing man?
GAMBLE: Great. There is another great tenor voice, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GAMBLE: You have fantastic voice. But the point that I wanted to make is that Howard was saying something about how the media and people try to vilify, demonize Michael Jackson. But you must remember that Michael Jackson, in my view, was a very powerful entity. He was so powerful and he was spreading love. He was spreading love for children, love for people and bringing humanity together. So the forces in this world who are against those things they tried to vilify this man and they tried to destroy him.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you though about that Kenny Gamble. Didn't he participate in that? I mean, some of his behavior was just...
GAMBLE: Oh I think...
MARTIN: ...very eccentric. And I wonder and I'm curious to know whether he was aware of the effect that...
GAMBLE: ...let me...
MARTIN: ...some of his behavior will have on the way he was perceived as an artist?
GAMBLE: Well, let me just say this. I think when you have soundbites, you know, on TV. Last night, I was looking at an interview that they had with Michael Jackson with Ed Bradley, which is - which Ed Bradley is gone also, too. But he asked him about the young kids and how - he said there's nothing wrong with sharing your bed. But that was the clip that they played, but the whole interview was he said the greatest thing that you can do for someone who's visiting you is to let them sleep in your bed, and it reminded me of my mother. My mother who is 94 years old, the number-one thing that she does when people come to visit her is that she will leave her own bed and let them sleep in her bed.
MARTIN: I see. I'm sorry, we're going to have to leave it there, gentlemen. We appreciate your time, both of you sharing your time with us at a time when I know you're certainly personally grieving.
We're hearing musician Howard Hewett, formerly of the group Shalamar, a singer, songwriter and producer. And we also heard from Kenny Gamble, a legendary half of the Gamble and Huff producing duo who worked with Michael Jackson. We previously had with us Duke University Professor Mark Anthony Neal. He was kind enough to stay with us. I thank you all so much for joining us.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.