Michael Jackson's GRAMMY night 'Thriller': 30 years later
They were two musical giants born just months apart in the '50s. As both came of age, they mastered their respective crafts to become synonymous with absolute excellence. On Feb. 28, 1984, Michael Jackson and The Recording Academy took their curiously symbiotic relationship to the next level at the 26th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles when Jackson won eight GRAMMYs, an unprecedented single-night haul for an artist at that time.
On the cusp of the 30th anniversary of that thrilling night, we look back at what is still considered one of the finest moments in music history. Jackson's record-breaking GRAMMY night was a coup for The Academy as well — the 26th GRAMMY telecast experienced its highest ratings ever with nearly 44 million viewers tuning in. Such was Thriller's commanding grip on the global imagination.
"We knew Michael was going to win everything — I mean, how could he not?" says guitarist Steve Lukather, who played on multiple Thriller tracks. "I remember I brought my little sister to the show because she wanted to meet Michael. He was very nice to her. There was a lot of love backstage, a great buzz."
Thriller engineer Bruce Swedien attended the 26th GRAMMYs with his wife, Bea. "It was very exciting," he recalls. "There was a lot of professional envy that night."
Whether you were a musician or just a regular Joe or Jane in 1984, it was hard not be envious of Jackson. An internationally renowned performer since he was 11, it seemed that Jackson, at age 25, was already taking a career victory lap. He earned eight GRAMMYs in 1984, including Record Of The Year (for "Beat It"), Album Of The Year and Producer Of The Year (Non-Classical), all of which Jackson shared with Thriller co-producer Quincy Jones.
Jackson also nabbed trophies in the Pop, R&B and Rock Fields for his edgy and danceable hit singles "Billie Jean," "Thriller" and "Beat It." Topping Thriller's GRAMMY triumph, Swedien earned the award for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical.
Thriller was a one-disc pep pill for the music industry. Fueled by saturated radio play and unprecedented music video exposure, the album was instrumental in making an upstart cable network named MTV a household word. The video for the title track was released Dec. 2, 1983, less than two years after MTV launched, and, at nearly 14 minutes long, became a watershed moment for the music industry for its unprecedented merging of music and film. In addition, Jackson helped usher in the age of the "crossover," where R&B musicians fused funk with chart-friendly pop. Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS Records, touted Jackson's impressive achievement at the 26th GRAMMYs, describing Jackson as "the artist and … the man who has shown us the way in music, and youth, and song, and dance."
But why was Thriller such a creative and sales juggernaut? Swedien believes Jackson's magnum opus was the culmination of his childhood years performing with the Jackson 5, as well as experience earned from solo albums such as Off The Wall, which earned a GRAMMY in 1979 for the single "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."
"First of all, Michael was a perfectionist," Swedien says. "His vocal ability, his work ethic, his lyric writing ethic — it all was just phenomenal. He would never record without [a] warm-up … and he would never sing with the lights on. He always had it where he would sing in the dark, just so he wouldn't have to rely on reading from a piece of paper.
"Michael would do many, many vocal takes. Usually, Quincy [Jones] would take a break and leave Michael and I to put the takes together. So, if Michael would do, maybe, 20 vocal takes, we'd have the best of all of them, all we had to do was pick which one he thought was the best. We were doing 'Billie Jean' at Westlake Audio in L.A., and we did 91 vocal takes. The final take that went on the album was take two. That gives you an idea of Michael's abilities."
"When we did Thriller … it was vinyl back then, so the technical capacity [was] 19 to 18 minutes to really have a competitive sound with grooves," said Jones in a GRAMMY Living Histories interview in 2008. "'Billie Jean' was 11 minutes long and with 27 minutes on there … it gets all squeezed up in this real tinny sound.
"So after violation of the basic rules, which is not going over 18 or 19 [minutes] per side on vinyl … we got to cut it down. … And Michael said, 'Yeah., but it makes me want to dance.' … And so we had to let him do it his own way. And it came back, and it sounded terrible, [and] Michael started to cry. … So we took out some good songs and put in '[The] Lady [In] My Life,' which we needed for mood, and James [Ingram] and I wrote 'P.Y.T. [Pretty Young Thing]' [plus we had] 'Human Nature' and 'Beat It.' And man, that, together with all of that other stuff, ignited."
Lukather also shared in the success of Thriller, along with his Toto bandmates, keyboardist Steve Porcaro, who co-wrote "Human Nature," and late drummer Jeff Porcaro, who performed on "Beat It" and other tracks.
"The first thing we recorded was 'The Girl Is Mine' with Paul McCartney," Lukather recalls. "That was a big thrill. We did that live in the studio. We were jamming Stevie Wonder songs with these guys, working with childhood heroes. It was incredible."
Jackson's talent for coaxing transcendent performances from his instrumental accompanists is evident on "Beat It," the singer's trailblazing exploration into rock. Though GRAMMY winner Eddie Van Halen performed the song's legendary guitar solo, many may not know that Lukather played the track's bass and rhythm guitar riffs.
"I remember Michael was specific about how he wanted that track to feel, so we worked on it a bit more," Lukather says. "Eddie cut his solo to 2-inch tape, and that messed up the sync. So, Jeff Porcaro and myself had to overdub to Michael's lead voice … and an Eddie Van Halen solo. We had almost nothing to hang on to.
"Being the genius drummer he was, Jeff was able to lock in a rhythm in two takes, so then we had a drum track. I added bass and all the guitar [riffs], then we got together again at Westlake with Quincy and Michael, and finished the bridge thing that leads into Eddie's guitar solo, changing some of the notes so it wasn't so repetitive."
Jackson's insistence on excellence paid off in historic sales and GRAMMY glory. To date, Thriller has sold more than 29 million copies in the United States alone, making it the best-selling album in history. Some 30 years later, Lukather remembers the King of Pop's GRAMMY moment as one of the most memorable events of his career.
"There's big, and then there's ridiculous — this was ridiculous," he says. "We all knew [Thriller] was gonna be huge, but the biggest selling record ever? That's definitely something to tell the great grandkids — 'Yeah, your old man was on the biggest record in history.' That's pretty cool."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)