The spring of 1986 should have been the best time in Quincy Jones' life.
The veteran producer had just won three Grammy Awards for supervising the mega-hit "We Are the World" and was set to head back into the studio with Michael Jackson to record their follow-up to "Thriller," the best-selling album of all time.
Barbra Streisand and Lionel Richie were eager to have Jones produce their next albums too, and film studios were calling in the wake of Jones' success with "The Color Purple"--which he both scored and co-produced.
But Jones' memories of that period are anything but happy. His 12-year marriage to actress Peggy Lipton was crumbling, his mother-in-law was dying of cancer, and he was suffering from exhaustion and overwork.
"At one point, I was experiencing about seven of the Top 10 stress factors," the 56-year-old Jones said.
"It all hit in such a strange way," he said, sitting in the living room of his Bel-Air home. "We had overworked on 'The Color Purple,' so I had blown my adrenal system. I was exhausted. And when you go through a divorce and get thrown out of your house, you lose all those symbols of your well being. When you have that many things pulling you apart, you have to change things around and take control of your life."
Jones' first step was to postpone all work projects. His second was to go off, alone, to Tahiti, where he spent a month trying to sort things out.
"I stayed for 31 days," he said. "It was the most heavy 31 days I ever had in my life. I went all the way down. I was just wandering from island to island. I was really in trouble. I meditated four or five hours a day, went all the way inside to get it together. What I wanted more than anything else was to get a real serious spiritual connection going again, and that's what happened. I had to take my control of my life for the the first time."
The breakdown and recuperation left Jones feeling stronger than ever.
"It feels like the best thing that ever happened to me," said Jones, whose first album in eight years, "Back on the Block," will be released on Tuesday(11/21) (see review, Page 97). "With so much success and everything else zooming all around you, sometimes you need God to just slap you and say, 'Let's take a look and see what's going on here.' It's like when I had the brain operation."
The reference was to Jones' two near-fatal 1974 neural aneurysms, which he has long credited with putting his life in perspective.
Of the 1986 breakdown, Jones said finally: "It really woke me up and give me a lot of wisdom that I think will last me for a long time. I have a happiness and inner peace I've never known before."
Things always seem to work out for the best for Quincy Jones.
The Seattle native, who is beginning his fifth decade in the music business, has had a charmed career.
He evolved from his '60s role as the pre-eminent black producer/arranger/composer--he was the first black vice president of a major pop record company, and the first black musician to reach the top rung of film scorers--to his current standing as the most successful and most highly regarded music producer of the 1980s.
He produced the decade's best-selling album ("Thriller") and best-selling single ("We Are the World"). He's the only person to twice win the Grammy for producer of the year. And Jones is the only contemporary figure known primarily as a producer whose own albums consistently become best sellers.
Jones' last album, "The Dude," reached the Top 10 and was nominated for a Grammy as the best album of 1981. Expectations are high for the new collection and its first single, a soulful remake by Ray Charles and Chaka Khan of the Brothers Johnson's 1976 smash "I'll Be Good to You." (Jones also produced the Brothers' original version.)
Even Jones' one conspicuous flop--the 1978 film version of the musical "The Wiz"--had a big silver lining. The experience gave Jones a chance to work for the first time with Michael Jackson--who was just then starting to look for a producer for his first solo album as an adult star. Jones got the job and went on to produce Jackson's next three albums, which have sold a combined total of 70 million copies worldwide.
A quick glance around Jones' music room suggests the level of esteem in which he is held in the music business.
There are the awards: an Emmy for the landmark TV miniseries "Roots," which he scored, and a National Trustees Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
There are the photos of Jones with a few famous friends: Spielberg . . . Streisand . . . Richie . . . Pryor.
And, most dramatically, there's a framed copy of the sheet music for "We Are the World" that was autographed by most of the all-star cast that Jones assembled that night four years ago.
"Thanks for all the great records," wrote Bob Dylan. "No one else in the world could have pulled this off," said Kenny Rogers. "Thanks for a wonderful memory," wrote Bette Midler.
The affection was also evident in recent conversations with a few of the people who have crossed Jones' musical path in the last 40 years.
Lionel Hampton, in whose 1940s big band Jones got his start as a trumpeter, said, "He had the hope and he had the ability to make these hopes come to reality. Q always told me, 'I'm going to make a million dollars with my music.' A few years ago I told him, 'You left Seattle in a cardboard box but you went back in a Rolls-Royce.' "
Herbie Hancock, who has played for Jones on numerous film scores and recording dates since the mid-'60s, added that "it's very inspiring to work for him. He has a wonderful way of not telling you what he wants but drawing out of you that which he knows you have. So, instead of feeling you're just reading a part like a robot or a computer, you feel like you're actually a part of the construction of the music."
James Ingram, who sang the hits "Just Once" and "One Hundred Ways" on Jones' "The Dude" album, also pointed to Jones' ability to elicit the best performance.
"To me he's like a movie director," said Ingram. "As opposed to a producer who just says, 'Can you sing that line again?,' he actually directs it. He sees it in another dimension other than just sound."
Barbra Streisand, who teamed with Jones for one song on her 1988 album, "Till I Loved You," calls Jones a "Renaissance man."
"He has come to define excellence not simply in one, but in so many different fields of endeavor," she said in a statement to Calendar. "Beyond what he does, however, I have always been particularly impressed with who he is, and with his ability to display just as much integrity personally as he does professionally."
Jones, fit and compact at 56, attributes his success to his refusal to be pigeonholed.
"I hate categories," he said. "I think they demean people. It tells you that you don't have the capacity to grow; that you're a mono-minded person. I've been a victim of that a lot--even in film scoring. People would say, 'Oh yeah, he's a great suspense writer.' So I would do all comedies for a while just to stay away from categories.
"I've always tried to try to move around and take chances. I love the idea of that. I would have gotten bored otherwise. I'd go nuts."
If Jones likes change and challenges so much, does this mean that he and Jackson will go their own ways after three blockbuster albums together?
Surprisingly . . . yes.
Jackson is working with other producers on new songs that will be included in an upcoming greatest-hits package, and Jones says that after that he'd like to see Jackson produce himself.
"I would love to hear him produce an album on himself," Jones said. "We don't have anything to prove anymore. We've already done it. I feel like whatever that was about, we did it in the '80s. This is the '90s now. It's time to do something else."
And Jones has no shortage of projects in the works. Among them:
* "Voices of America," a weekly TV talk show featuring the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jones and TV veteran Van Gordon Sauter are co-executive producers of the show, which Jones describes as "basically about the little guy vs. the system."
* "Dance Theatre of Harlem," a Broadway show based on the famed ballet company of the same name. Jones is developing the production with the troupe's director Arthur Mitchell.
* "Jericho," a movie in which Jones will act with his longtime friend Marlon Brando. After that, Jones hopes to direct films, using the knowledge he gained watching Steven Spielberg on the set of "The Color Purple." Says Jones fondly, "I went to the University of Spielberg for two years."
"I've been 360 all my life," Jones enthused. "That's what makes it all beautiful. Besides, there's nothing left for me to prove in the music business except being happy with what I do. I like that feeling--not having to worry about getting old in a young man's business."
Jones has always played a wide variety of music, including pop, R&B; and jazz. But to do so in his native Seattle four decades ago used up a fair amount of shoe leather.
"At 7 p.m. we'd play the Seattle Tennis Club where we had to play all that terrible (fluff) like 'Roomful of Roses' with cup mutes on the horns. At 10 p.m. we'd go to the black clubs on the outskirts of town and play 'Kidney Stew Blues' and all the Louis Jordan stuff. And then at 2 in the morning we'd go down to Jackson Street in the prostitute district and play be-bop all night. We didn't get paid for it but that's what we really loved. So every night was the total range."
Jones is still mixing it up, but he no longer has to seek out his audiences. These days, they find him.
In the new "Back on the Block" they'll find him working with an all-star cast of players on what is virtually a crash course in black popular music of the 20th Century.
Jones stated his intention for the new album in the liner notes: "To bridge generations and traverse musical boundaries." And he wasn't kidding. The album features both hot young rappers and be-bop legends. The guests range from the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, to 12-year-old newcomer Tevin Campbell.
"I've always loved hybrids," Jones explained. "I've always been curious about connections and finding common denominators. What's the equivalent for rap in the African idiom? What happens when a pure African melody gets next to a hip-hop rhythm section? It's like an adventure."
Jones has been on this particular adventure--tracing the history of black popular music--since the mid-'70s. He has been aided in his search by Caiphus Semenya, an African musicologist and composer/singer/arranger.
"I thought it would be something I could get involved in in three or four months, but we've been talking about these connections for 14 or 15 years," he said. "We went back to the Spanish Inquisition and looked at African rhythm influences on classical music. I made a chart and started to see a lot of wild parallels. What I've learned sneaks out in everything. It sneaked out in 'Roots' and it sneaked out on this album too."
Despite the pressures and pitfalls, Jones wouldn't change a thing about his career.
"If you could somehow pick your time to be involved in American music, I wouldn't trade anything because I had a chance to work with all of the first team--Louis (Armstrong), Duke (Ellington), Basie and Ella--and all of the things that followed that--up to Michael and Stevie (Wonder)," he said.
"I feel like the luckiest man in music, to have come along in the swing era and then seen modern jazz, rock 'n' roll, doo-wop, folk and everything else happen. I've seen a lot of beats go by in 40 years."