What It Was Like to Record Michael Jackson’s Voice

The Jackson 5 in 1972. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I was still in Detroit, and I got a call from Berry Gordy — he was out in California — and he said, “We signed these kids. We finished the album and listened to all the mixes, and I don’t like any of the mixes. I’ll send you the multitracks, and I want you to remix the whole album.” And I said, “Anything you want me to do?” He said, “No, do what you think is best.” It was The Jackson 5’s first album. I was in the studio, all by myself mixing. I’ll tell ya, the first time I heard Michael’s voice, my jaw hit the floor. “This little kid can sing!” But yeah, that’s how it started, and, like I said, that’s how he [Berry] trusted people. He trusted my ability to scrap all the mixes that he had, send me the multitracks, and say, “You do it.”

So the first time you heard Michael’s voice, would you say that you instantly knew he was the real deal?

His pitch was great and he had good emotion. He was like an adult in a kid body. He really impressed me. He wasn’t just singing words — he came from the heart. Once I moved up to L.A., I was with him a lot. Michael was a good kid; I really liked Michael. He would sit next to me in the control room and would ask, “What does this do? What does that do? Why does that happen?” He was very into the behind the scenes thing too. He was always fascinated by the equipment, how things were accomplished, and how you do it. He was very soft-spoken and very polite, until he got behind a microphone, and all of a sudden, bang — “Who is that guy?” I liked him a lot. He was a very nice person. He was genuine. It was not easy to be Michael Jackson. He couldn’t go anywhere without putting on a disguise, because he’d be mobbed. I heard one time he had never been into a grocery store, because he couldn’t even walk into a grocery store. Jermaine [Jackson] was telling me they went to a grocery store when they’d closed, and they flipped the manager a couple of bucks so that Michael could walk around. He couldn’t believe all the aisles and shelves of food — that blew his mind.

Russ Terrana, in Tape Op magazine, on his time working as Motown’s chief studio engineer.

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