Michael Jackson’s Musical Director Speaks

As a musical director, keyboardist, and composer, Michael Bearden has been fortunate enough to work with some of the industry’s biggest icons. From Madonna and Whitney Houston to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, Bearden has earned the respect of his peers and developed a reputation for the professionalism and excellence that he brings to every […]

As a musical director, keyboardist, and composer, Michael Bearden has been fortunate enough to work with some of the industry’s biggest icons. From Madonna and Whitney Houston to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, Bearden has earned the respect of his peers and developed a reputation for the professionalism and excellence that he brings to every project.

In 2008, Bearden prepared to showcase his largest project to date: This Is It – a 50 concert run in London with the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson. Shortly before the concert’s opening, however, Bearden and the world received the devastating news of Jackson’s untimely death.

After a year of mourning and celebration, Michael Bearden has announced a special tribute to his beloved musical partner: “One Last Goodbye” – featuring the vocals of Ayanna Irish. Upon the release of the charity single, Michael Bearden managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his early years in the “South Side” of Chicago, the lasting impact of his Howard University experience, and Michael Jackson’s undying love of music, life, and the globe.

AllHipHop.com:  By now, I am quite certain that every Michael Jackson fan has seen This Is It. With this film, we were introduced to you and your professional role as Jackson’s Musical Director. Unfortunately, given the film’s focus and time restraints, we – the viewers – did not receive a lot of information about your musical background and personal history. So, I wanted to take this time to share your story with the world. I know that you are a very accomplished instrumentalist, but you have a strong attachment to the keyboard. Why does this instrument captivate your love and interest so much?

Michael Bearden:  Well, my dad actually got me started, and he forced me to play. I’m from the south side of Chicago.  And where we grew up, there were gangs and all that kind of stuff. So my dad just got mad one day, and he came home and told me and my brothers what we were going to play. When he came around to me, he said: “You’re going to play piano.” And then my mother was just powerless to do anything about it. She felt so bad about it. But he was really serious. Of course, she was never powerless in our family, but he was so determined to have us do something to just keep us busy, to keep us out of trouble. So that’s how I started. I was five years old when that happened and I haven’t stopped since.

AllHipHop.com:  More often than not, when kids have something dictated upon them, they tend rebel. What has kept your musical passion burning?

Michael Bearden:  That’s a great question. The thing about it is, I always loved music. I can remember things all the way back to two years old. That always trips my mom and dad out, that I can recall places and things that happened. They always ask me, “How do you remember that? You were two years old.” So as long as I can remember, I always loved music. It had a power over me very, very early. And so I think by my dad just insisting so heavily that I start playing music, I probably was longing for it anyway; wanting to have an outlet for that thing that was moving me anyway. So it was just a natural progression that I was able to just stay on as I grew up.

AllHipHop.com:  Having started out at such a young act, walk me through your musical training. Were you classically trained? Did you develop this gift on your own?

Michael Bearden:  Well, once my dad insisted that we started playing, he actually found an old piano somewhere; or probably a brand new one. Just an upright piano that they had delivered to our house that we finally moved into. I started playing, and my godmother, who was my mom’s dearest friend, used to play at the church. So before they wanted to spend money on any type of lessons or anything, they asked her if she would teach me. So we got some little books, and my godmother just started teaching me. They saw that I was really serious about it and I was taking to the lessons quite easily. Some other things happened. I wanted to play not only just the classical stuff that I was learning, and just the regular piano basic stuff that I was learning with my godmother, but I wanted to start learning the stuff that I heard on the radio. You know, all the pop music. And we couldn’t really afford sheet music that much. So my mom – and I don’t even know if she remembers this – she was like: “We don’t have money for that.” So she took the radio one day and plugged it in beside me. She said: “You hear what you want to play, right?” And I said, “Yes.” Then she said: “You learn how to play it like that!” [laughing] So that’s how I learned how to start playing by ear. I would just pick out stuff and write it down my own kind of way. I didn’t really know how to write with any special notation or anything like that. With time, I just learned how to play by ear.

AllHipHop.com:  Oh, wow! So you only had two choices: sink or swim? [laughing]

Michael Bearden:  Yeah! [laughing] So that was my early, early training. And then after that, it just took off. When I finally got to high school, I was quite accomplished already. I started meeting more and more people along my lines as far as playing and all that kind of stuff. I met Ramsey Lewis’ son, named Kelly, and I used to go over to his house and we’d rehearse. One day, Mr. Lewis came downstairs, and he was like: “Wow. Who’s playing the piano?” So I met Ramsey. He took me under his wing a little bit and he would show me stuff. So I had early training, and early mentors, like Ramsey Lewis and Herbie Hancock, and other people in the Chicago area, as I started getting out and more accomplished.

AllHipHop.com:  So at what point in your life did you realize that music was going to be the center of your personal world and professional career?

Michael Bearden:  Well, I attended Whitney Young High School, which was a magnet school. It had a really great art department, but you had to audition to get in the music program. Every year the school held its annual spring concert. One year, Ramsey was going to play, some people from Earth, Wind & Fire were going to play, and a trumpeter from Howard University was going to play as well. The trumpeter’s name was Fred Irby. So long story short, Ramsey couldn’t make the concert, but he had been teaching me some of things he was supposed to play. So in effect, I had to kind of sub for him, if you can imagine that, at fifteen.

AllHipHop.com:  Wow! I would have been nervous!

Michael Bearden:  Oh, I was! [laughing] But I played with the band, and since I am a percussionist, too, I played the timpani, [vibraphone] and marimba. Fred Irby, who was a professor at Howard University, as well as the jazz department head, told me that if I kept my grades up, then I could get a scholarship to Howard. And that’s where I went. So I kept my grades up and got a scholarship to Howard University! [laughing] At Howard University, I met so many kids that were like me. I was a small fish in a big pond, now, but that’s where my drive to become a professional really, really started, in going back to Howard.

AllHipHop.com:  Over the course of your career, you have been attached to some of the biggest names in the music industry.  Looking at your résumé, it is equally impressive that your musical experiences are very diverse as well. Out of all your opportunities, is there one that you would credit for being the “tipping point” for your professional career?

Michael Bearden:  Well, one thing that I credit  to my Howard experience is that it forced me to learn everything. I thought I could play really well in Chicago, and I was getting accolades and all that kind of stuff. But when I moved to D.C., there were so many kids that were like me that were really, really great, so I realized that I had so much more to learn. When you’re in that kind of environment, you realize that you have to learn everything, because if you want to work and if you want to survive, you need to be versatile. It was during this time that I met Stevie Wonder. He came into a club that I was playing in, in Georgetown, and he asked if he could sit and play with me. And at first, I thought he was joking. I was going to leave and let him take over the keys, but he said: “No. I want you to play, too.” So that was very cool. And I went to his concert after that and hung out with him. He gave me a lot of pointers on things I should do when I get out of school. And so, once I graduated, I took everything I owned, put it in a U-Haul and moved to Brooklyn. I found a room in a three-story walkup in Brooklyn. No kitchen. A shared bathroom – down the hall with a family. And none of it mattered! [laughing] I just wanted to be in New York!

AllHipHop.com:  As the old saying goes, if you can make it in New York, then you can make it anywhere!

Michael Bearden:  Definitely! Once in New York, I just started fitting in anywhere I could be heard, which is what you could do back then. You could sit in at the Blue Note, after all the shows were done, at like two, three in the morning to get people to hear you. And so I was doing a lot of that thing. I think the tipping point, and the thing that really started my career in New York, was meeting Herbie Mann. I had a friend who was working with Herbie, who is a great,flutist, and I went to see both of them one day, when I happened to be really low on money. It was obvious that they were having problems on stage with the guitar player that they had. So after I went back stage, I talked to my friend, and my friend introduced me to Herbie. He said: “Oh, man, you should meet Michael. He’s a great keyboardist.” So Herbie Mann said: “Do you know any of my music?” And I said: “Well, I could know it.” So Herbie said: “Here. Learn my music. I’ll be back in a week. If you know it, I’ll give you a gig.” Of course, as hungry as I was,  I learned it! [laughing] And when I went back, I played like two or three songs. He didn’t even look at me. He just pulled out his calendar and started giving me dates. Through these gigs I met everybody you could name in jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie to Freddie Hubbard. And after I worked with them for a while, I was introduced to another class of artists, including vocalists, like Angela Bofill. Not too long afterwards, I started working with Angie and I became her music director. And then through Angela, I just started meeting a lot of people. And then a friend from Howard University was leaving Whitney Houston’s band. He and his wife were going to put out a record, so they were looking for another keyboard player to replace him. I flew out to Los Angeles, and I thought I was just going to walk in on the gig. But I did not. I had to audition with about twelve to fourteen other keyboard players. When I went in, I just had my mind set: “They can go home. I’m going to get this gig.” When I went in, I said that to the music director, who was Rickey Minor, and he just laughed at me. I’m sure he was thinking: “Who the heck is this kid?” [laughing] I just played like I was hungry once again, and a few days later they called me, sent a limo, got me a hotel room and I rehearsed with Whitney that day. The next day I was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

AllHipHop.com:  Simply amazing!

Michael Bearden:  Yes! With Whitney, we made history. I did the Super Bowl with her. I did “I Will Always Love You” with her. I toured with her. I was with her from 1990 until 1992. So I spent two years with her. And after Whitney, I worked with a lot of people in-between. But one day, I got a call that Madonna was looking for people to play with her on Saturday Night Live. I went down and they wanted a picture and a bio. And I asked: “Do you want to hear me play?” And one of they guys said: “No.” So I went down to her house. I went to the doorman and gave him my information. I didn’t know if Madonna would even get it. And as a matter of fact, I found out maybe a few days later that somebody else got the gig. So I didn’t even think about it. And then two days after that, they called me and said: “Well, could you come in anyway, because the guy they picked couldn’t really play.” So I did. I guess the picture didn’t mean anything! [laughing] So I went down, and I joined the band. We did Saturday Night Live, and she really liked what we did, and after the show, she pulled us all in the dressing room. She asked all of us: “What are you doing this summer?” And I said: “Going on tour with you.” [laughing] She laughed and said: “Yeah. That’s what you’re going to do.” So we went on tour with her in ’93. That particular tour was called The Girlie Show. We did that tour, and after that tour she called me. Usually when somebody like that calls you, it’s never direct. Someone else connects the call for you. But I picked up the phone, and it was just her. She sounded kind of nervous. So I asked: “What’s wrong?” She said: “Well, I want to ask you something, but I don’t think you’ll do it.” And I said: “Well, what’s that? Just ask me.” She said: “Well, I’d like you to be my music director.” And then I waited for like a half a second. I was like, “Uh, yeah, let me think about that, Madonna. Of course! What are you talking about? What are you nervous about?” She was like: “I didn’t think you would do it.” So I was her music director, and I was with her nine years.

AllHipHop.com:  As you transitioned into the role of “music director,” what were some of the challenges that you faced in the transition process?

Michael Bearden:  Well, the transition for me actually started when I was about ten years old. When I was ten, I had a band with my brothers and some kids in the neighborhood. So I was already learning how to lead. But you’re right: coming from just being an instrumentalist in somebody’s band to taking over their whole musical operation was a big transition. I think that the biggest challenge was just being accepted by the people who had been there already. There was a little bit of strife when I first got in. I’m not sure people really were ready to accept me in that role because I had been just a musician. And I don’t even like to say “just a musician” because musicians are important. But it was important to gain the respect of all the musicians, I already had that, because I’d been in the trenches with them, so that was the easy part. And then just learning the whole corporate structure and dealing with the politricks, as I call it, of what it takes to deal with an artist. Artists have entourages. Artists have egos. Artists have needs. And artists have structures and timelines. They also have budget concerns and fiduciary responsibilities. To Madonna’s credit, she’s one of the hardest working artists I’ve ever worked with. Her ethics is amazing. But she also let me do what I needed to do with the music. She was like: “This is what I want and this is what I need. Now you go do it.” And that’s the great challenge. But I was able to step up and meet the challenge. And it was great. Every situation was different and I was able to learn a great deal. In my tenure with her, we did Oprah and a bunch of MTV Music Awards here and in Europe, along with a myriad of television shows. So there were a lot of different situations that required different things. So it was really great on-the-job training.

AllHipHop.com:  Many people have echoed your statement that Madonna is one of the hardest working artists on the plant. So what is the biggest professional lesson that you learned from her?

Michael Bearden:  The best thing that I learned from her: never be content with where you are. Always try to reinvent yourself. I talk to Quincy Jones a lot, and he once told me that he never listens to the things that he’s done. If something of his comes on the radio, he will change the station. He never really looks back. He always looks forward. He feels good and feels confident about the product as he puts it out. And then once it goes out, he doesn’t really revel in the past. And so I kind of learned that no matter how big and how famous her status was in the industry, she always worked it. I’m reminded of that Oprah show we did – and how we rehearsed. We only took three guys: me, the drummer and the guitarist. We rehearsed in her house probably like eight hours over one song. For a lot of artists, it comes a little more natural and a lot of them don’t want to work that hard; but for Madonna, it’s the music that she created, so she knows it. It’s her thing. It’s her vibe. It’s her. She’s not trying to be anybody else. But she just wanted to be good. And I took that work ethic from her. I had it before, but she really fine-tuned it. So that’s another professional lesson that I have taken from her. And it’s served me well with everything that I’ve done since then. It served me quite well, actually.

AllHipHop.com:  You have been lucky enough to work with Madonna, one of the hardest working female artists of all time, but you have also had the pleasure of working with Michael Jackson, who will undoubtedly go down in history as the hardest working male artist of all time. When you look back at the This Is It experience, is there a particular memory that comes to mind?

Michael Bearden:  Well, there are a lot of memories that come to mind from This Is It, but let me just backtrack a little. After working with Madonna, she went into a different direction, and I needed a new direction, too. So in the interim, I actually became Jennifer Lopez’s musical director. I worked with J for about a good year and a half. But while I was working as her MD, I got a call to come play at Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary concert at Madison Garden in New York, right when 9/11 happened. So that was my first taste of Michael, and I wasn’t his MD at the time. He already had his MD, so I was just playing the keys. With that concert, I got a taste of how Michael liked to work and his ethic, and the thing that I was most surprised about was how approachable that guy really was. He was really one of the kindest artists I’ve ever worked with, bar none. But when he got on the stage and he had that mic in front of him, man, there’s nobody that I’ve seen that could touch him. There just isn’t. So I got a taste of that, then. And he saw that I had the same kind of work ethic, because we were working really hard on that concert. We did a lot of rehearsing – just to get it the way he wanted it. But we were always there for him. So I think that helped me secure the MD position for the This Is ItThis Is It, is that even at age fifty, he was hip. When he got on the stage, that was just his comfort zone, his sanctuary, his home. He was just so comfortable on the stage. Everything he did, it was just natural for him. I always felt like a little kid around him, because I was such a fan for so long. I grew up with the Jackson Five. They’re from Gary, Indiana, and since I’m from the south side of Chicago, they were right there. So I saw them when they were coming to Chicago to play in certain venues before they even got famous. When they got famous, I watched the cartoons, the whole thing. concerts. But I think probably one of the most memorable things that I’ll take from MJ, from

AllHipHop.com:  I completely forgot about the cartoons! [laughing] I watched them, too!

Michael Bearden:  Oh, yeah. The cartoon was there every Saturday, with the cereal, we were watching the Jackson Five. All of that! [laughing] So just imagine my excitement – during rehearsals – when MJ would come by me. He would just be dancing the way he does, and he would look back at me and give me a smile or a thumbs-up. And sometimes I would just be in a daze, because I would be a kid. I’m thinking about all that stuff and here I am, on the stage. Not only am I on the stage with MJ, I’m like leading his whole thing. So one of the most memorable things for me is just that full circle moment of just loving him as a kid, then actually being on a stage with him, chosen by him to share the stage.

AllHipHop.com:  You are currently promoting a charity single, “One Last Goodbye,” which honors and pays final respects to Michael Jackson’s incredible legacy.  How has this project evolved?

Michael Bearden:  Well, the charity single was born out of the shock that I experienced from Michael’s death. Kenny Ortega, Travis Payne, a wonderful choreographer, and I were with MJ so much during the preparations for that tour. I mean, I was easily pulling twenty-hour days; Travis and I easily. Kenny maybe more, and MJ more than all of us. We were up constantly, going back and forth over notes, how to make this show the best show ever on the planet. Just doing all that. So having all that momentum going into something like this, then to have it just all of a sudden stop, I haven’t really dealt with MJ not being here. I went straight from him passing to the memorial, and putting all of that together. And then right from the memorial to putting the film together, because I was one of the film’s producers. And then right from the film into my current job with George Lopez. So I hadn’t really dealt with MJ passing, so this new tribute single is sort of a way for me to give Michael a personal goodbye.

AllHipHop.com:  How did you go about selecting MusiCares as the charity recipient?

Michael Bearden:  Well, I am on the Board of Governors for the Recording Academy, and I am serving the second year of my first term. And so, I see what the charity does firsthand with musicians. I’m a musician, first and foremost, and will always be. This is a tough business, and sometimes musicians go through tough times. And I’m really grateful that there’s an organization there like MusiCares that can help musicians, because not too many other people even think about musicians. You know, a lot of times when the public thinks about musicians, they always think about the famous ones that have a lot of money and go to parties and drive six cars and all that kind of thing. But there are a lot of musicians behind the scenes that they don’t know about. And even the famous ones can be helped by MusiCares, so I just think it’s a great organization, and I couldn’t think of a better one to help with some of the proceeds of this tribute song.

AllHipHop.com:  Is there anything about this particular project that you really want to bring to people’s attention?

Michael Bearden:  I just want people to remember Michael’s central message – which was basically “love.” So I’m just hoping that with this single, which will be released near the anniversary of his birth, we can just keep the legacy of Michael’s memory going, and take it back to what it should have been about since he was born: his music. And that’s what I want to do with this.

For more information on Michael Bearden, follow him on Twitter [@MichaelBearden].

For more of Clayton Perry’s interview exclusives, visit his digital archive. He can also be followed via Twitter [@crperry84].