Skip to main content
Got a tip?
Newsletters

THR Icon: Quincy Jones Reflects on Career, Michael Jackson and Why He Wouldn’t Work With Elvis

The musical maestro inaugurates the THR Icon series with his famously candid takes on Hollywood racism and drug use, his formidable exes and his powerful Silicon Valley pals: "Richard Branson and Paul Allen and Elon are trying to get me to go with them to space."

In a screening room in a Bel Air estate, the walls tell the story of American popular music: Framed Frank Sinatra albums hang alongside a 30-times-platinum “Thriller” certification and the handwritten sheet music for “We Are the World.” And in the center of the room, in a black velour tracksuit adorned in a leafy pattern, sits Quincy Jones Jr. — the man responsible for all of it.

There is virtually no corner of pop music that Jones, now 88, has not touched himself or influenced in some way. To say nothing of his Oscar- and Emmy-nominated work in landmark film and television projects like The Color Purple and Roots. Sitting here — giggling, gossiping, delighting in his own good fortune — it’s as if Jones himself can’t quite believe the life he’s led. Of course, as with any career as epic, there have been speed bumps and controversies along the way, and there were certain topics where Jones simply would not venture, including the sexual misconduct allegations regarding one of his most legendary collaborators, Michael Jackson. But the famously forthcoming Hollywood titan still had plenty to say about a great many other topics, from early lessons learned from jazz giants like Billie Holiday and Charlie “Bird” Parker to the in-your-face racism he endured in the business for decades to his weekly dinners with neighbor Elon Musk — there really isn’t much that Jones has not seen, heard or done.

Related Stories

What’s that in your lap?

Oh, some great pictures, man. Guess who was here two days ago? (Holds up a photo of himself and Paul McCartney.)

No kidding.

Yeah, we’ve been friends since he was like 21.

What’s your secret to recognizing talent?

It’s just the personality, man, personality. Back in the day, all I had to say is, “I want a singer that after 15 seconds of hearing them, I know exactly who they are.” Because singers have that kind of identification or not, and I work with all of them. I worked with Billie Holiday at 14, God.

What did you learn from Billie?

Oh my God, stay away from heroin. She could barely get to the stage, man. She could barely walk on the stage, but Bobby Tucker was like my brother. He eventually became the music director for Billie. When she came out, we were so awestruck by her, we forgot to play the horn. He said, “Goddammit, read the music, man. Play the horns!” We were 14 years old. Come on, man. Billie Holiday.

You had a similar lesson when you met Charlie Parker when you first got to New York City in ’51.

All I had was $17, man, $17. And we went uptown to 138th Street in a cab, and he said to me: “Youngblood, let’s go cop some hemp.” I said, “Yo, let’s go,” but he didn’t want no hemp. He left me out in the cold. I had to walk from 138th down to 44th Street to the America Hotel [while Parker did heroin inside]. I was so disappointed, man. Heartbroken. My idol. New York, boy, that’s the greatest school in the world. I was there 20 years ’cause New York has the same population as Los Angeles, but it’s one-10th the space.

I get the sense you’re the kind of guy who likes to be around people.

Not all the time. I never been lonely or bored in my life, never, and I guess that comes from not having a mother. My mother was put in Manteno State Hospital [in Illinois] with dementia praecox [a precursor term to what is now referred to as schizophrenia] when I was 7 years old, so I never had a mother, and I’ve been trying to find one since then.

Have you ever been in therapy?

Hell no. But something like dementia praecox, boy, that’s tough. Oh my God. We went out to that Manteno State Hospital when she went in. The first day we went, a [patient] was up on a chair with a bowl with feces in it. She doodied in it, and she was telling all of the patients, “You shall have no pie. You shall have no pie.”

But your mom, she kept sabotaging you throughout your career, like the time she sent an angry letter threatening to sue Universal over your first film-scoring gig.

Fucking with me, tried to stop me from doing what I was doing. She thought that jazz music is for the devil. But nothing could stop me, man. Jazz was my mother. Without a doubt. It’s so addictive, man. It’s revolutionary, too. It’s where a lot of the interracial marriages came from.

Do you miss those days of jazz?

Yeah, I just enjoyed it, man. I learned very early why God gave us two ears and one mouth, wants us to listen twice as much as we talk, or he would have given us two mouths, not two ears. There’s 12 notes that have been floating around the universe for 720 years now, and we have those same 12 notes that Brahms, Bach and Beethoven had. When I [moved to Paris in 1957 and studied with famed music theorist Nadia] Boulanger, I saw Stravinsky every day. He was with her, too.

What did you take from the classical music world?

Counterpoint, structure, science, left brain. Right brain is feeling, right? Emotion. We’ve got to learn everything about music because it is the most fantastic, magical gift. People cannot live without music or water, you know that? Could you live without music? I don’t want to. What sign are you?

I’m a Leo.

That’s great. I’m Pisces, Leo rising and a Scorpio moon. Everything I need. (Laughs.) Got me feeling so horny. I’ve had Leo girlfriends, boy oh boy. They don’t play.

Do you consult an astrologist?

I studied with John Glenn. He took me aside and decided to teach me about astrology from an astronaut’s point of view.

Lazy loaded image
Jones with Frank Sinatra on a soundstage in 1964. John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Didn’t you and Frank Sinatra have the first song ever played on the moon?

You’re goddamn right. “Fly Me to the Moon.” I recorded it with Count Basie in four-four time. When he wrote it originally, he wrote in three-four. (Singing.) “Fly … me to the moon …” One, two, three, one, two, three. You can’t swing in three-four. Sinatra said, “I like it the way you did it with Basie, the four-four. Would you consider doing that with me and him?” I said, “Hell to the yeah!” So I had to sit in my hotel room in San Remo and overnight I had to write that arrangement. No piano, nothing, just write it. Frank died when he heard it, man. I was so happy because, really, that was my first thing for him. I was 29, you know? Those guys were in their 50s and 60s.

Explain a bit how orchestration works because I think for most people, it’s a mystery. Do you need to know how to play all those instruments?

No. I did play mostly every brass instrument. I played sousaphone, bugle, French horn, trombone, everything. Because we played in the marching band with the majorettes. You have to understand every instrument — how low can it go and how high can it go. I love orchestration, man, that’s my passion.

But you have the ability to create entirely in your head this fully formed musical painting?

I have synesthesia [the ability to “see” music].

Do you think that’s your gift?

One of them, yeah. That’s what helped me when I was doing movies, I put it right down on paper.

What brought you to Hollywood during the mid-1960s?

They called me to do Gregory Peck’s Mirage [in 1965] and I came out here. I was dressed in my favorite suit, and the producer came out to meet me at Universal. He stopped in his tracks — total shock — and he went back and told [music supervisor] Joe Gershenson, “You didn’t tell me Quincy Jones was a Negro.” They didn’t use Black composers in films. They only used three-syllable Eastern European names, Bronislaw Kaper, Dimitri Tiomkin. It was very, very racist. I remember I would be at Universal walking down the hall, and the guys would say, “Here comes a shvartze” in Yiddish, and I know what that means. It’s like the N-word. And Truman Capote, I did In Cold Blood, man. He called [director] Richard Brooks up, he said, “Richard, I can’t understand you using a Negro to write music to a film with no people of color in it.” Richard said, “Fuck you, he’s doing the score.” I did, and I got nominated for an Oscar.

And Capote apologized?

Yeah, he called back when I got an Oscar nomination. I lost to Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Later, you produced The Color Purple. It was you who cast Oprah, right?

That’s right, and I also put her name on the credits. (Points to her name on The Color Purple poster.) The room downstairs is called the Oprah Suite, the O Suite. I built it for her — all her favorite colors in there and everything. We did pretty good, too. They kept saying a Black picture can only do $30 million. I said, “We’ll see. We’ve got a great cast. We’ve got Spielberg. We’ll see.” We did $143 million.

Have you spoken to Oprah lately?

Yeah. She sent me some flowers for my birthday, man. It made my soul smile. It was like I was 170. I mean, unbelievable. Filled the whole table up. She’s beautiful, man.

What was your favorite movie when you were a kid?

All of them. The ones that got Liz Taylor and Judy Garland. Both got wiped out at 12 years old cause they called Dr. Feelgood in and they told them they’ll give them some vitamins and stuff and he’s giving Dexedrine and Benzedrine.

Did you know Judy Garland at all?

I worked with her at Newport [Jazz Festival]. You kidding? I’d never forget that. We were playing the evening show with Duke Ellington, and she came out and the wind was in the mic, so Phil Ramone, the engineer, came out and put a condom on the microphone. To keep the wind away. And when Judy came out, she did like this. (Mouths swallowing the mic.) I never let her forget it.

Lazy loaded image
From left: Jones and Michael Jackson with David Geffen at a post-concert party at Universal Studios circa 1982. “We went through 800 songs to make Thriller,” says Jones, “800 … to get nine.” Brad Elterman/FilmMagic

How did you meet Michael Jackson?

When he was 12 at Sammy Davis’ house, and he told me when we decided to do [The Wiz], he says, “I need you to help me find a producer. I’m getting ready to do my first solo album.”

What was he like on the set of The Wiz?

He knew how to do his homework, whether it was with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly or whoever, James Brown. He was doing some Elvis copying, too. “The King of Pop,” man. Come on!

Did you ever work with Elvis?

No. I wouldn’t work with him.

Why not?

I was writing for [orchestra leader] Tommy Dorsey, oh God, back then in the ’50s. And Elvis came in, and Tommy said, “I don’t want to play with him.” He was a racist mother — I’m going to shut up now. But every time I saw Elvis, he was being coached by [“Don’t Be Cruel” songwriter] Otis Blackwell, telling him how to sing. [Blackwell told David Letterman in 1987 that he and Presley had never met.]

You know, I saw a play about Michael Jackson, and it argued that Donny Osmond kind of stole The Jackson 5’s act and kind of got bigger with it because he and his brothers were white.

I was going to record Donny at one time, and I had nicknamed him 818 because that area code had just come out, and I said, “Motherfucker, don’t talk about [us working together].” He went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and talked about it, and I dropped it because he told her we were doing the record.

And that was it, that was the end of you and Donny Osmond?

Yeah. Marie was cute, though. A lot of booty. (Says something in Russian.)

How many languages do you speak?

Twenty-six. I write seven. I speak Serbo-Croatian. Turkish. I write Arabic.

How do you learn languages?

Who’s the best teacher of a language, man? Come on!

Women?

You’re goddamn right. I produced the Beijing Olympics in 2008. August 8, 2008. Do you remember those lights, man? And the drummers? One of my girlfriends used to be married to royalty over there. (He cuts himself off.) No, I don’t want, that’s another one I don’t want … big trouble.

I get the sense you don’t like the way some of your past interviews have gone?

[After a 2018 interview for New York magazine,] my daughters set an intervention with me. Oh, and they called me “LL QJ,” for “Loose Lips Quincy Jones.” They kicked my butt. And they know how to.

When travel was normal, how do you get around?

Planes. When I was with Warner Bros., I had six G5s, man, and two Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. If you make them $300 million — I made $400 million for them — you get everything you want, man, the villas in Acapulco and Aspen. If you did it, they knew how to take care of you.

How many homes do you have?

One. That’s all I need.

Are you still happy here in Bel Air?

Oh yeah, I love it. I wouldn’t be any other place. I look out here, I see Rupert Murdoch lives across the hill. And there’s Jean Kerkorian right there, the Pritzkers are down the hill. I see Berry Gordy across the way. It’s like home.

Didn’t Elon Musk live next to you?

Right next door. When you drive down, there’d be a house right on the corner. He was there 10 years. We’d have dinner over there two or three times a week with Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, all them cats. All of them.

Did you watch him on Saturday Night Live recently?

Yeah. He’s funny. I’m glad he did it. What the fuck, it shows he has a sense of humor. He wasn’t hilarious, but he was funny. At least his attempt was funny.

I was thinking, you’ve got the first song on the moon. You’ve got to get the first song on Mars.

Oh my God, I’m not going there. Richard Branson and Paul Allen and Elon are trying to get me to go with them [to space]. He says, “It’s $250,000, I’m going to let you go free.” Uh-uh.

That sounds cool.

Are you crazy, man? You see that thing taking off? [He’s alluding to any number of flight disasters to befall Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Musk’s SpaceX.]

You recently turned 88. How are you feeling?

I feel 37. I lost 63 pounds. I was spending a lot of time in Brazil and was putting açai juice in vodka 24/7. But I stopped alcohol, and I went from 243 pounds to 174. Of course. I’ve picked up a little bit here. I’d better be careful. I’m up to 189 now. I don’t like that.

Let’s talk about your third wife, Peggy Lipton [they were married from 1974 to 1989; Lipton died in 2019 at the age of 72].

God bless her. We spent 12 hours with her with [our daughters] Rashida and Kidada, and the next day she took a morphine drip. She had colon cancer. Terrible. Big, big, big hole. She was a beautiful lady. A serious lady. We had good times. Two wild daughters. In fact, Rashida — do you ever do the puzzles in The New York Times?

Lazy loaded image
Jones with his third wife, Peggy Lipton (far left) and their daughters, actress Rashida Jones and designer Kidada Jones (far right), in 2007. Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Crossword puzzles?

Yeah. OK, I did that, and it said “co-parent with lead singer of Vampire Weekend [Ezra Koenig],” and it’s her name in there. I was so proud of it. [The couple had a son in 2018.]

What did you think about all the George Floyd protests last summer?

It’s been coming a long time, man. People have been turning their heads the other way, but it’s all the same to me — misogyny, racism. You have to be taught how to hate somebody. It doesn’t come naturally, I don’t think. I don’t think so, unless you’ve been trained. I just think it’s such a bad habit. These racists, oh my God. Asians? How the hell do you get mad at an Asian girl?

What’s next for you?

First I want to do a book on my old life because I’m tired of watching the internet with all the little hiccups and flaws in information. It blows my mind because when you get to 88, you’re concerned about that, you know? Get it right. Just tell the truth, you know? If something gets big, everybody’s the parent. If it’s a bomb, it’s all you.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.