Men in the mirror: the bassists of Michael Jackson

(Image credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

There's a revealing exchange about five minutes into This Is It, the documentary about the late Michael Jackson’s planned world tour, in which the Gloved One is encouraging his keyboardist to play the answer riff to the penetrating bass line of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” funkier. “It’s not there yet,” he says gently, before singing the entire two-measure groove flawlessly in the pocket, while playing air bass. 

Real bass seems to have always been at the forefront of Jackson’s music, whether it came from studio savants in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York, or his landmark use of synth bass that remains in vogue to this day. Alex Al, Jackson’s bassist since 2001 and a member of the seven-piece band featured in the film, concurs. “Bass was the most important instrument to him. He’d make references to Paul McCartney’s melodic playing with the Beatles, James Jamerson being upfront and center with Motown, or Stevie Wonder’s left hand.”

In an attempt to further explore the plucking preferences of the King of Pop— and what it was like to provide low end for him—we sat down with Al to discuss the inner workings during his three months of rehearsals for the This Is It tour.

We also reached out to a half-dozen Jackson vets for their memories and insight, as well as documenting his other deep-end denizens.

The Detroit-born Al had a Jackson 5- like start to his career, getting a P-Bass copy at age nine and filling the vacant bass chair in the 12-piece funk-rock horn band led by his older brothers when he was just 12. At 17, having already opened for the Gap Band and Cameo on a summer tour with Carl Carlton, Al headed to L.A. and enrolled in B.I.T. at Musicians Institute. In 1997, road work (via recommendations from Rickey Minor and Nathan East) with El Debarge, Bobby Brown, Diana Ross, and the Spice Girls led to drummer Terri Lynne Carrington tabbing him for the house band of the Quincy Jones/Sinbad TV variety show Vibe. 

The program’s high-visibility, “in-town” nature resulted in Al’s session work blossoming. His developed skills on upright bass and keyboard bass made him even more of a threat, leading to recordings with venerable vets such as Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Paul Simon, Sting, and Smokey Robinson, and chart-toppers like Janet Jackson, Tupac Shakur, the Pussycat Dolls, Uncle Kracker, and Jordin Sparks.

In the wake of the cancelled Jackson tour, Al remained as busy as ever, playing with Mariah Carey, an upright big band date with Quincy Jones, and the soundtrack for the Christina Aguilera movie, Burlesque. But his experience with—and the loss of—the man he knew as Michael remains resounding.

Alex Al (R) with drummer Jonathan Moffett

Alex Al (R) with drummer Jonathan Moffett (Image credit: Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

What led to you getting the call for This Is It?

I trace it back to meeting and working with Greg Phillinganes on Vibe; that led to his calling me for Michael’s 30th Anniversary Special on CBS, in 2001. From there, I did assorted studio work for Michael, some of it produced by John Barnes at Westlake, where they recorded Thriller. I imagine they might release that material at some point. This time around I got a call from keyboardist Michael Beardon, who was hired as the musical director; I had worked with him before. He said Michael asked for me. I jumped at the chance because I had no doubt he would set the world on its ear again.

Who arranged the songs?

Michael picked almost 50 songs overall and then we worked on getting about half of them ready for the London shows. Both Michael and Michael Beardon collaborated on the arrangements, but a third key element was the dancers. Whatever Michael worked out with them during the day took precedence at night. So an eight-bar intro might become 11 bars to suit the choreography— and Michael counted on us to remember that; there would be no charts of any kind allowed onstage.

How did you approach the bass lines, and how much freedom did you get?

As I say in the movie, you had to know them cold from the record because Michael knows every sound, 16th-note, and inflection, and he’s a stickler about having the original part as a starting point. From there, it was a matter of finding a way to update the parts in a manner Michael liked; he definitely wanted a fresh edge to them. Obviously, you can’t change the main bass line of, say, “Billie Jean” too much, but in the bridge, which is more legato, there was room to stretch. Early on, there were times I’d take too much liberty or not enough, but as the weeks went by I’d sort of figure out what makes everybody smile. I took the most liberties with the Jackson 5 medley [“I Want You Back”/“The Love You Save”/“I’ll Be There”]. It really lent itself to a modern-day Jamerson approach, and as I’ve gone through playing different genres of music, I’ve found his style has stayed with me the most. Having worked a lot with drummer Jonathan Moffett before, we had so much fun adding that sort of “modernold- school” nuance to the tunes.

What kind of bass directions would Michael give?

It was usually more performance-oriented than specific. So even on a steady, repetitive part like “Billie Jean,” he would say, “You know, Alex, it doesn’t necessarily have to feel the same at the end as it does in the intro.” In a show this big, with seven musicians, four backup vocalists, over a dozen dancers, and all the visuals onstage, you really can’t overplay. Your emotion and conviction is what it’s all about—putting a whole new energy and spirit into the parts. We would think we were playing a song great, and Michael would say we could do it even better.

Who decided what bass or keyboard you played on each song?

That was my job: to find out what was going to work best. Again, my approach was: let’s preserve what’s on the record and make it better. I’d listen to the Jackson 5 records and have my Fenders ready. I called Greg Phillinganes to find out what synth sound he used on “Thriller”; he’d say, “A Minimoog with two oscillators instead of three,” and so on. Every night at home I’d do at least an hour of programming to get the right keyboard sounds. Also, because bass and synth bass together were a key part of Michael’s sound, there were even sections of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Billie Jean” that I was playing bass and Minimoog together! I’d turn up my bass volume and really dig in with my left hand, hammering the notes, like on upright, while playing keyboard with my right hand.

On the flipside, for some songs it was decided as we went along. I was playing two synth bass parts on “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Smooth Criminal,” but one day I happened to pick up my Jazz Bass on “Criminal”—and it sounded so much funkier, everyone stopped and said, That’s what you should play! On “Beat It,” I used a Music Man 5-string with a slap-funk vibe to keep that R&B factor; it’s a classic rock song, but it has to move, live. Michael had a term he would use a lot: Keep the rock funky and keep the funk rockin’.

How do you reflect on the experience?

It was an unbelievable blessing on every level. Musically, I learned so much from Michael’s acute state of awareness and preparedness, I feel ready to take on any gig in the world. I’m honored that he called on me over the last nine years; many of my favorite bassists worked with him, so it’s thrilling to be a part of that history and lineage.

Personally, we’re talking about someone who would come in each day and ask me if it was okay to put his towel on my keyboard rack! I was one of the last people to leave rehearsal the night before he died, and he thanked me for my love and support. The next day I started getting texts on my way to the Staples Center; I got there and waited with everyone, and when his passing was confirmed, we all lost it. A month later we were doing the memorial concert on the same stage, with the same gear. It was so sad. The only way I can describe it is we lost an angel on earth—a musical angel.

Remember their time: players recall working with MJ

James Jamerson Jr. (and James Jamerson Sr.)
Jamerson Sr.: assorted Jackson 5 tracks; Jamerson Jr.: sessions for Triumph, Epic, 1980

When the Jackson 5 first came to Motown, my dad did the dates and he was very impressed with them. He brought their record home and said, “I have something for you boys.” It was so exciting for us because they were our age and they were stars, and Dad was playing on their music.

My experience with Michael and the Jacksons was during their Triumph album. Marlon brought me in to record with Tito, Ricky Lawson, Greg Phillinganes, and David E. Williams. We did a whole day’s worth of tracks and took a meal break. In the meantime, Michael had come in to listen, and when we got back we were told not to go into the studio because Michael was emotional. We thought, Uh-oh, there’s something wrong with the music—but Marlon explained that Michael always gets emotional when he really likes the tracks. They all listened and agreed the takes were keepers. I didn’t get credited on the album, but it was a real honor to work with one of the truly special talents and stars of our time.

Chuck Rainey
“Ben,” single from the film soundtrack, Motown, 1972; “Dancing Machine”/“It’s Too Late to Change the Time,”Motown single, 1974 

Michael was one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen. He had a great time feel, which no doubt helped him become a first-rate singer, dancer, and performer. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Billie Jean” are two of my all-time favorites, although I wish you could hear more of Louis Johnson’s bass on the tracks. I only met Michael once, on a cross-country flight. Jermaine recognized me, thanked me for “Dancing Machine,” and brought me over to meet the whole family.

Nathan Watts
Destiny [Epic, 1978]; Triumph [Epic, 1980]; “Say, Say, Say,” Paul McCartney [Pipes of Peace, Capitol, 1983]; “Muscles,” Diana Ross [Endless Love, RCA, 1981] 

Michael was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived and the kindest person you would ever want to meet. When we were doing Destiny, I overslept one morning and he came over to my house to pick me up in his Rolls Royce; he had just gotten his license! Bass-wise, for the most part he would tell me to do my thing. On “Heartbreak Hotel” [a .k.a. “This Place Hotel,” Triumph], however, he started dancing and singing rhythmically, to show me what he wanted. He was a master at grooves. Michael brought me in to do “Say, Say, Say,” and I figured it was a demo that Paul McCartney would play bass on. He took it to Paul who listened and liked the feel, so he left my bass part on there—and then he sent me an autographed copy of his album. My demo track for Michael’s song “Muscles,” for Diana Ross, was also kept. I owe a lot of my career success to him and I miss him every day.

Louis Johnson
Off the Wall [Epic, 1979]; Thriller [Epic, 1982]; “We Are the World,” Columbia, 1985; Dangerous [Epic, 1991]; HIStory [Epic, 1995] 

Michael was a super-nice person and I was deeply saddened by his passing. I was fortunate to have worked with him on his solo albums, and he always let me be my creative best. My job was to come up with bass lines, and Michael had complete trust in me. Occasionally, he’d hum a variation of something I played or ask me to make it more this way or that, or he’d say, “This section should be really hot—play extra strong here.” Quincy Jones and engineer Bruce Swedien were equally open to my suggestions on everything from how to EQ my bass, to using bass and synth bass together. I worked with Michael on his two albums after he moved on from Quincy, but it wasn’t the same. I’d come in and play to a track or a drum machine, or even just to get a note sampled. The last time I saw Michael was at his home studio to do “Come Together” [from HIStory]. What I’ll always cherish is the fun and excitement of playing live together on the Off the Wall sessions—Michael and everybody laughing, knowing we were making magic. After a take we’d all race to the control room, knocking each other out of the way for the best seat, while yelling, turn it up!

Nathan East
Victory [Epic, 1984]; Bad [Epic, 1987]; HIStory [Epic, 1995]; Invincible [Epic, 2001] 

Michael was a sweetheart of a guy in the studio—just one of the cats, telling jokes, sharing meals. I remember there was a 7-11 down the street, and for fun he would get into disguises and see if he could go in there without being recognized; it was the highlight of his day! He was very gifted and knew just what he was doing on sessions. We never had much bass interaction, but a few times Quincy Jones came out of the control room and sang me the most brilliant little turnaround or transition phrase, that Michael had hummed to him— which I was always grateful for. Just getting the call, you knew you would be seeing the best assembled talent, and you’d have that sense you were making history. I remember thinking while recording “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” how it would be all over the radio, around the world. Michael was one of the all-time great artists; he was an amazing singer, dancer, songwriter, producer—he had the whole package. There’ll never be anyone quite like him again, it’s a huge loss for all of us.

“Ready” Freddie Washington
Motown 25 TV special, NBC, 1983; HIStory world tour 1996- 1997; bass overdub session for unreleased track, circa 2000 

As an entertainer and performer I think Michael ranks right up there with legends like Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Fred Astaire, and James Brown. He was great to work with on the world tour; he was down to earth and liked to have fun and laugh. I remember he told us the band had the kind of groove he liked, for playing his music. What stood out to me was his incredible sense of time and feel. I used to watch him during the shows, and you could see the entire groove and pocket in his body movements. It was like listening to a drummer’s subdivisions and accents. He really knew all his songs inside and out. I would just feed off his moves and his amazing energy, both musically and inspirationally.

Other one-gloved groovers

Jermaine Jackson

The bass-playing brother of Michael (seen plucking a Gibson EB-3 in early Jackson 5 clips) became a successful solo artist who stayed at Motown when his brothers left for Epic. He can be seen via YouTube thumping and singing his 1979 hit “Let’s Get Serious” on the Arsenio Hall Show.

Wilton Felder

The legendary saxophonist/coleader of the Crusaders and busy L.A. session bassist in the ’70s played on many Jackson 5 recordings, including “I Want You Back” [from Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, Motown, 1969], which Wilton discussed for BP’s July ’98 complete transcription. He recalled, “The bass part, which essentially mirrors and counters the melody, was mostly written out. I added just a bit of myself to it. As a sax player, I related to the line’s hip chromatic movement—but being self-taught, I found the fingerings a bit intimidating.”

Ron Brown

The ’70s L.A. session bassist (Marvin Gaye, Beach Boys, Barry White) and James Jamerson aficionado—see September ’04 for his complete transcription of Jamerson’s part on “I Can’t Get Next to You”—played on various Jackson 5 tracks, most notably “Never Can Say Goodbye” [Maybe Tomorrow, Motown, 1971].

Michael “Sugar Bear” Foreman

Upon arriving at Epic, the Jacksons recorded two albums at Philly International with producers Gamble & Huff: 1977’s The Jacksons and 1978’s Goin’ Places. The bassist on the bulk of those tracks is the late Foreman, a TSOP session bassist best known for his work with Teddy Pendergrass. Among the more bass-compelling tracks on both discs are “Blues Away,” “Think Happy,” “Jump for Joy,” and “Music’s Takin’ Over.”

Anthony Jackson

The contrabass and session master played on the film soundtrack of The Wiz [Atlantic, 1978], specifically backing Michael on “You Can’t Win” and “Ease on Down the Road” (with Diana Ross).

Gary King

The late New York studio vet (Bob James, Roberta Flack) played on the Jacksons album Destiny [Epic, 1978], including the hit “Blame It on the Boogie.”

Bobby Watson

The onetime Rufus bassist provided one of Jackson’s baddest bass tracks on “Rock With You,” from Off the Wall [Epic, 1979]. For the complete transcription in July ’05, Watson told BP he recorded three Rod Temperton tunes during his Off the Wall session. All of these were recut by Louis Johnson, with only “Rock With You” making the album. “Engineer Bruce Swedien told me later that Louis played a tighter bass part, but it lost the magic. He said, ‘Man, we pulled up that “Rock With You” track and we had to keep your bass. You were pumpin’ it! We took out your bass and the whole song died. Your bass made the tune.’ That made me feel really good.”

Michael McKinney

Road bassist for the Jacksons (recommended by Nate Watts). Credited on the Jacksons album Triumph [Epic, 1980], and is the bassist heard on Jacksons: Live [Epic, 1981].

Clay Drayton

Also credited on Triumph.

Paul McCartney

The lone Beatle to collaborate with Michael, Macca appeared on “The Girl Is Mine” from Thriller [Epic, 1982], with Jackson returning the favor, co-writing and singing on “Say, Say, Say,” from Paul’s Pipes of Peace [Capitol, 1983]. Bass, however, was handled by Louis Johnson and Nate Watts, respectively.

Steve Lukather

The Toto and session-guitar legend played P-Bass and rhythm guitar behind Eddie Van Halen’s lead guitar on “Beat It,” from Thriller. “Maniac” guitarist Michael Sembello is also credited with bass on Destiny.

Andrew Gouche

The gospel bass giant featured on BP’s January ’10 cover provided backup vocals on Bad [Epic, 1987] as a member of Andrae Crouch’s singing section.

Abraham Laboriel

The L.A. session legend is credited on Dangerous [Epic, 1991].

Muzz Skillings

Living Colour’s original lowend man, Skillings appears playing bass in the video for “Black or White,” from Dangerous.

Don Boyette

The veteran touring bassist (Lionel Richie, Cher) can be seen on the DVD Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour [Epic, 2005], filmed in 1992.

Terry Jackson

Credited on Dangerous and HIStory [Epic, 1995].

Wayne Pedzwater

The late New York session bassist appeared on the sessions for HIStory at the Hit Factory, including a four-hour date for the song “Money.” He shared a little insight in BP’s November ’95 review of the CD: “Michael kept stuffing things under my strings to get just the right muted tone. Then he brought in all kinds of playback speakers to hear how the part sounded. At one point he was turning the knobs on my bass while I was playing!”

Guy Pratt

The London session bassist (Pink Floyd, Madonna) is credited on HIStory.

Colin Wolfe, Keith Rouster, Doug Grigsby

All credited on HIStory.

And on keyboard bass

Greg Phillinganes is the best-known of the Michael Jackson keyboard bassists, starting with his propulsive piano-and-synth bass line on “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” [from the Jacksons’ Destiny] through his teaming with Michael Boddicker on “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” [Off the Wall], and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller” [all on Thriller]. Other lefthand luminaries include Steve Porcaro, David Paich, Brad Buxer, John Barnes, David Foster, Larry Williams, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley.

This was it

With the help of bass tech and rhythm-section programmer Scott Eric Olivier, Alex Al had all the basses covered for the This Is It tour...

Basses ’75 Jazz Bass (maple neck with EMG pickups), Music Man StingRay SR5 5-string (maple neck), fretless Music Man SR5 (rosewood neck); seven other basses, mostly Fenders

Strings DR Hi-Beams or Lo-Riders; Ernie Ball roundwounds on the Music Man basses; La Bella flatwounds; various old sets (Alex prefers well-worn strings)

Effect pedal EBS OctaBass

Amps Two Ampeg SVT-VR heads, two SVT-810AV cabs (one for bass, one for keyboard bass)

Monitors Sensaphonics in-ears; plenty of drums, percussion, and Jackson vocals—plus some guitar and keyboards—in his monitor mix

Keyboards Vintage refurbished Model D Minimoog, Minimoog Voyager, Roland Alpha Juno 2 (as a controller); rack keyboards: Studio Electronics SE-1X, Yamaha TX802, Roland XV-5080, Roland D-550

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Chris Jisi was Contributing Editor, Senior Contributing Editor, and Editor In Chief on Bass Player 1989-2018. He is the author of Brave New Bass, a compilation of interviews with bass players like Marcus Miller, Flea, Will Lee, Tony Levin, Jeff Berlin, Les Claypool and more, and The Fretless Bass, with insight from over 25 masters including Tony Levin, Marcus Miller, Gary Willis, Richard Bona, Jimmy Haslip, and Percy Jones.