The legendary Thriller producer on legalising drugs, dealing with Jacko’s snake … and why Hitler was on cocaine
Hi, Quincy. Good to talk to you, especially considering the time where you are (1.15am). You’re up late!
I always am, fella. All my life. It’s the only time the muse lets you loose, you know? I used to write from midnight to 10 in the morning.
You’ve got some incredible stories. Is it true you once had lunch with Leni Riefenstahl (1) in which she told you that most of the Third Reich leaders were addicted to cocaine?
Not most – all of them! Freud came up with the concept of cocaine (2). I used to work for pimps when I was little, and they used to take it all the time because it closes down any fear or problem with violence.
Did Hitler take cocaine?
Hell, yes, man! He was first in line. He had syphilis, all kinds of shit.
So cocaine doesn’t just ravage communities today, it is responsible for many of the horrors of the second world war?
Yes, and the stuff gets stronger. These kids today look at it like it’s cough medicine.
Are you into legalising drugs?
Yes, I am. I think marijuana should be legalised. I’ve been through all of that, where you have to be secretive and don’t want your parents to know. It’s a very interesting addiction. Any kind of dope is. You walk in the door at A, go to B, go to the 12th floor and it’s over.
Were drugs involved in any of your recordings?
No way. Never. Never, never, never. That’s where you step over the line, brother. No, no, no. Not even close. Not even alcohol. No way (3). Not the way we work, man.
Was there a serious atmosphere in the studio, then, during the making of Off the Wall and Thriller?
Hell, no, man – it was as loose as you can get! We’d be joking and having fun. Are you kidding? You gotta know how to party [laughs]. If you get uptight, the music’s going to sound like nothin’. I used to say, “Always leave a little room for God to walk in the room.”
Were you scared when Michael bought Muscles the snake into the studio?
Yes, I was, man. He wrapped himself around my leg.
So he was literally your trousersnake?
Yeah! He used to crawl across the console … I wasn’t very comfortable with that.
And didn’t Bubbles the chimp bite your daughter?
Yes, he did. You got a good memory, man.
Did you ever have to take Michael to one side and tell him he was being too weird?
Only when we first met, when he was 12.
When you were young, you and your brother saw a man hanging by the back of his coat on the first rung of a telephone pole, with an ice pick stuck through his neck. How did you survive your childhood?
You have to find out who you are. My mother went to Boston University – she was the smartest lady, she spoke 12 languages, and could type 140 words a minute. Then, when I was seven years old, they came and put her in a straitjacket (4) and took her away. So at seven years old, I didn’t know what “mother” meant. That affects your mind. You have a different sense of survival because mummy’s breast isn’t there anymore. That’s when I let music be my mother. And music has never let me down once.
Is it true you owned a pair of gloves worn by the legendary boxer, Joe Louis?
That’s right. My dad got me them. He used to work for the roughest gang in the history of Chicago, the Jones boys – black gangsters. It was 1941 and they made $110m dollars – that was the equivalent of a billion back then. Al Capone ran them out of Chicago and they went to Mexico. That’s what it was like back in the 30s.
Did you run errands for them as a kid?
No. Later on I did, for a couple of pimps. It was fun.
Out of all the people you’ve worked with, who has impressed you most?
Do you want me to run some of them off for you? It’s just a little list. Oscar Peterson, Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Kenny Clark, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington, Andy Williams, Billy Eckstine, Charles Aznavour, Aretha Franklin … It’s ridiculous, man.
So you’re saying, you can’t choose?
Yes, it’s my long-winded way of saying that! You can’t compare Lesley Gore with Frank Sinatra, or Michael Jackson with Ray Charles. They’re too distinctive.
Which three most dramatically impacted on 20th-century popular culture?
Let’s see, we’ve got bebop, doo wop and hip-hop. That’s a hell of a relationship, and they don’t even know each other. It’s sociological, man. What was the question again?
Which three changed the world?
It’s a wide range of influences. I was lucky enough to get the Fender bass, when I was in Lionel Hampton’s band. I was like, “What the hell is that?” Without that Fender bass, there would be no rock’n’roll, no Motown – nothin’. Trust me. The electric guitar came in in 1939, but it didn’t have any chutzpah without the electric bottom.
Frank Sinatra called you Q. What did you call him?
Francis, or FS.
Were you nervous of him?
Nervous? Not even close, man! I was living in France, studying with Nadia Boulanger [tutor to Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland]. And I come in one day, they say, “Grace Kelly called, Mr Sinatra wants you to bring your house band” – I had the best house band in the world. So we played with Frank, and he said five words to me: “Good job, kid. Koo-koo.” I never saw anything like him on a stage. He was like a magician, from another planet. He had it down. The most magical thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Frank was bipolar, and one of the greatest friends I’ll ever have. I have his ring on, with his family crest, from Sicily. I’ve never taken it off.
Bono thinks you’re the coolest man he ever met.
Oh, that’s my little brother, man. I love him. He started Live Aid, and we probably wouldn’t have done We Are the World (5) if it wasn’t for that. I introduced him to all the heads of state in the world that I know, and he did the same for me.
U2 recently gave Apple users a free copy of their new album. Wasn’t that your idea (6)?
I know, 500 million! Maybe so, I don’t know.
Quite a few people are cross about that U2 album arriving unwanted on to their mobile phones, aren’t they?
[Ignoring the question] I’m just sad to know we don’t have a record business anymore. It freaks me out, man. It’s over: 98% piracy everywhere on the planet.
Do you see a solution?
We’re working on it, with China, believe it or not. It’s astounding.
Is it going to save the music industry?
Hell to the yeah! We’ve got three and a half billion people here. They’ve got four times our population. If they come to the table – I can see it so clearly, it scares me, man. We’re going to be dealing with China Unicom, and China Unicom has 880 million cellphones. So we’re really on the right path, you know?
Do you have every celebrity’s number on your cellphone?
No way. I got 19 of them [mobile phones]. I don’t carry one with me. My security guy handles that. Every minute those suckers go off. It’s the age of cocoonism.
Where everybody on the fuckin’ planet is sitting at home fiddling with their goddam phones.
So you won’t be buying an iPhone 6?
They send them to me – I don’t want them. I don’t want to be reached all day.
Apparently you’re a direct descendant of Edward I of England?
Yes. Edward Longshanks. I’m telling you, I’ve got the whole thing laid out in my kitchen. I also found out that Jane Fonda was my third cousin.
Yes, sir. My family is part-African, Huguenot-French and Cherokee Indian. And Welsh on my father’s side. I’ve got a doctorate from Cardiff(7). That was really sweet.
And you’re the exact same age as Michael Caine – not a lot of people know that.
Same year, month, day and hour – 3:40 Chicago time.
Is he the person you’re most likely to call for a chat at 1am?
The irony is, we’re all so goddam busy. He likes to do five movies a year. I love that. That’s what makes him Michael Caine.
Who would play you in a movie?
Terrence Howard. Clint [Eastwood] wants to do it – we’ve already talked about it. But I’m not sure.
Would you have to tone some of it down otherwise audiences would be too shocked? (8)
I don’t think about it. I’m too busy. I’ve got stuff going on that’s mind-shattering.
Do you personify the American Dream?
I don’t know, man. I just know we had the biggest-selling record in the history of music. That’s a good feeling. You should go with your feelings, because your feelings work.
An Evening with Quincy Jones is at Britten Theatre, The Royal College of Music, London SW7 , on Sunday 28 September 2014 at 7.30pm Tickets: www.seatlive.com
(1) The Nazi film-maker who directed Triumph of the Will.
(2) The Austrian psychoanalyst was an early proponent of the drug.
(4) She suffered from schizophrenia.
(5) The 20m-selling 1985 charity single. Though Quincy may be confusing Bono with Bob Geldof with regards to Band Aid.
(6) Quincy’s 2010 album Soul Bossa Nostra was released on 700m mobile phones in China.
(7) In 2009, Jones was made a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama at an award ceremony in Cardiff, citing his lifetime musical accomplishments and Welsh family roots.
(8) He told GQ in 2012 that, once when he visited his mother in an asylum, she squatted down, defecated into her hand and proceeded to eat it.