I had the privilege recently of interviewing Michael Bearden for Dot to Dot. He is widely known as Michael Jackson’s musical director for the This Is It tour, but I discovered he was much more than that.
Michael has worked, performed and recorded with some of the great artists of our time, has composed numerous film scores, is a consummate musician and arranger,and is currently musical director for Lopez Tonight on TBS. As impressive as his credits and gifts are, Michael remains humble. In this interview, he shares a refreshing view on his friend Michael Jackson, and a very human element of “celebrity.”
Valmai: Michael, you are a very accomplished keyboardist, arranger, composer and musical director. Can you tell us how and when your career began in the music/entertainment industry?
Michael: The first time I ever played or performed music in front of people was probably around the age of 11 or 12. I played for neighborhood events, personal parties and other things like that. I realized very early on that getting paid for something I would do for free was a path I wanted to pursue more. With much hard effort, perseverance and a lot of dues paid, I eventually progressed to where I am now. It’s been an amazing journey so far and I don’t have plans to stop any time soon.
Valmai: Who was the first major artist you performed with or recorded for?
Michael: The first major artist I worked with was Ramsey Lewis. I was very young when I met him- probably around 15 or so. He took a liking to my potential and me. I would go to his house and sit with him on the weekends when he was available. I learned a lot just by being around him. He probably doesn’t even remember those days. I also met and was mentored by Herbie Hancock around that time. He was and still is a major influence on me.
After I left Chicago and moved to D.C., I met Stevie Wonder. I was able to meet him when I was 18. He invited me on stage with him when he was just passing through D.C. and I got my first taste of what a true genius is like.
My first big break after I left D.C. and moved to Brooklyn, NY, was with the legendary flutist, Herbie Mann. With Herbie, I traveled the world and was exposed to many huge artists in the business. I was able to work with many of them because of Herbie’s influence. Fortunately, it hasn’t stopped since.
Valmai: There is a long impressive list of artists you have either performed with or recorded for including Sting, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. What were those experiences like for you?
Michael: All of my musical experiences are different. However, the one thing that remains consistent throughout is that child-like feeling I get anytime I work with a new artist or an artist I’ve worked with before. It’s still a lot of fun for me. Hopefully that will never change.
Valmai: What did you learn professionally and personally from working with some of these artists that has enhanced your career and life?
Michael: Great question! I learned many things from working with these artists. What I see consistently is that every artist I’ve worked with just wants to be loved. It sounds corny, but it’s true. The art they create is not necessarily the same as the human being who creates it. I learned from Herbie Hancock years ago that to be a great artist, you must first be a great human being and citizen of the world.
Yes, even MJ and I talked about how he longed for a greater sense of normalcy in his life. It is true that many artists seek attention and some sort of validation. There is no debate about that, but at the end of the day I go back to my original statement; we all just want to be loved.
Valmai: I’m sure you have experienced some very memorable moments on stage, but are there any that stand apart from the others?
Michael: There are so many memorable moments on stage for me. Too many to mention here, but I’ll point out two.
A few years ago, I was on stage performing with several different artists at Michael Jordan’s celebrity golf tournament in the Bahamas. The great Billy Preston, or the fifth Beatle as he is affectionately known, was performing a solo organ piece. Billy was very sick and was towards the end of his life, but he performed as if his health was perfect. He ended his piece by standing up and doing an amazing glissando just with his feet on the organ pedals. The entire place erupted in applause and cheers. It was an extraordinary moment.
Another memorable moment was during a performance with Whitney Houston. This was during her “hey day” and we were on a very long tour. I don’t remember the city we were in, but I do remember the song. We used to play a song called “In Return." We played this song just about every night. However, on this particular evening Nip, (as all of her close friends call her) decided to put something extra on her delivery. She didn’t tell us she was going to do, she just did it. At the end of the song at least half the band was crying including me. It was the first time it had ever happened to me and hasn’t happened since. Whitney was the only artist ever to do that to me while I was playing with them on stage. What an amazing gift she had in those days. We’ll probably never see a gift like that again anytime soon in this lifetime.
Valmai: Michael you are an arranger and composer and you have also scored quite a few films. What inspired you to take this direction in music as opposed to popular songwriting?
Michael: I’ve always loved film and film music. When I was a kid, our parents would take us to the movies often. I was always more fixed on the music than the actual images. I loved the other dimension music adds to the scenes. Music makes a scene more loving, scary, suspenseful, joyous, etc…I did not know I had the talent to score film until I went to college. While at Howard University, I was asked to provide music to a score for a documentary on Chief Justice Turgood Marshall. After seeing and hearing the music I composed married to the images on the screen, I was hooked. I’ve been scoring film ever since that moment.
Valmai: What do you think are the necessary qualities needed to make a good arranger?
Michael: You definitely need necessary qualities like command of music theory, orchestration, instrument ranges, imaginative musical phrasing, colors, textures and the like. But I think the most important quality might be un-teachable. That quality is taste. You have to know what to put in and what to leave out. I recently performed with icon Sergio Mendes. He paid me a great compliment after the show. He told me that anyone could learn technique, theory and all the rest, but he said you couldn’t teach taste. I’m always humbled when artists tell me that. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I’m glad to know what that means.
Valmai: You first met Michael Jackson in 1993, and worked with him professionally for the first time in 2001. What were both experiences like for you?
Michael: I met MJ in Mexico, at his concert in 1993. I was working with Madonna at the time and we all went to see the show. He was having a difficult time breathing in that Mexico City altitude. I was having a hard time and I wasn’t even on stage performing. We went back stage and I was able to say hello and all of that. He’s always been one of the nicest artists you ever wanted to meet. He was just a really sweet human being.
I first worked with him on stage in 2001 at his 30th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He wasn’t what I was told he would be. He was easy to talk to, engaging and not as shy as I had heard. His brothers were around so maybe he was in his comfort zone. I found him to be extremely professional and very detailed oriented. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. His talent speaks for itself.
Valmai: Did you keep in contact between 2001 and 2009?
Michael: Not every single year, but I did see him a few times when he was recording. MJ always recorded a lot of music when he was working on a record and I was in the studio with him for a few of those recordings. A lot of stuff I played on never made the final record, but it was always great working in the studio with Michael.
Valmai: How did you come to get signed on for This Is It?
Michael: When I found out I was on the short list of music director hopefuls for MJ's tour, surprisingly I was somewhat reluctant. I had been the music director for so many big stars in my career and wanted to pursue other musical endeavors closer to home. However, when it's Michael Jackson calling you have to at least explore the possibilities.
I first met with the This Is It director Kenny Ortega. We had a great meeting and he invited me back down that evening to meet with MJ. I asked that there be keyboards in the room when MJ and I met. When they finally brought MJ in to see me, I was already playing around on the keyboard. He walked in smiling broadly with pep in his step. Instantly, he started dancing and swaying to me playing "Workin Day and Night". We hugged and began talking about what he was looking for, and I told him what I was looking for. I interrupted him several times to have him sing songs as I played them. To his credit he did and we had a great bond immediately. We did a concert for about half an hour; just him and me. As I was leaving, I asked him for the set list and he just laughed. They were looking at a few more guys after me. He said, “God bless you,” and I left the room. I wasn't even home good before I got the call to be his musical director. I had a private gratitude moment and went right to work learning songs!
Valmai: Michael Jackson knew every element, instruments, notes and chords in his music. He knew when something wasn’t right and we see this in the film with his song “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Was this the only time you and he didn’t see eye to eye with a musical arrangement?
Michael: Many people seem to think me and MJ didn’t agree in that moment. Not true. We we’re having a “creative joust” as we called it. MJ had a strong opinion and so did I. We laughed and hugged at the end of it and you can see the mutual respect and love in the film. I have never been one to just be a sycophant and bow down to everything the artists say. Why else would you hire a musical director? Just hire a person to execute what you want to have happen and go with that? MJ was brilliant in that he always wanted to grow and push boundaries. He would always tell me to push him so that’s what I did. I have no problem doing that with any artist I work with. That’s the way it was with MJ and me and that’s the way it is. We saw eye-to-eye and then pushed our vision even further. The results are always better with that approach. It was all done in love.
Valmai: What is your most memorable moment working with Michael on This Is It?
Michael: That question is always so hard to answer. I grew up idolizing Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 as many of us did. And now here I was working closely with a childhood hero. Not only working but confiding in, hanging with and having the blessings of his trust and faith in me to deliver him to the next level of his professional life. What can be more memorable than that? Towards the end, MJ trusted me implicitly and told me as such while he was here. I’ve been eternally “validated”, if you will, by MJ, and that alone is memorable enough for me.
Valmai: Other people who have known Michael, speak about energy or an aura that surrounded him- that when he walked into a room the air literally changed. Did you experience that?
Michael: Yes, actually I did. Everything they say about that is true. MJ just had a certain swagger with him nobody else could duplicate. That aura was real. The air would change because he always made it a concerted effort to smell good. And he smelled amazing! I always knew when he was around even if I didn’t see him.
Valmai: You were the last one from the company who saw Michael after that last rehearsal. Did he seem happy and ready to do this tour?
Michael: You’ve done your homework. Yes, he was very happy. Kenny Ortega and I were with him for the better part of the day taking care of tour business stuff. Travis was out working with the dancers. We got to the stage late that evening, but put in a full rehearsal. MJ looked great and he said he felt good. The band said he had a glow about him that night. They were right. I hugged him; he told me he loved me, talked about the next day and we got in our cars and left Staples Center. I have a very positive mental image of the last time we spoke. I’m at peace with it.
Valmai: Many people have said Michael would never have been able to complete 50 concerts. What is your opinion on this?
Michael: Who are these many people and were they at the same rehearsals I attended? I’m always amazed at people who talk in full confidence with no advantage of firsthand knowledge, obviously basing their opinions on hearsay and rumor. Look, It’s difficult to say if MJ would have completed all 50 dates or not. He was never one to mark when he worked. He always went full out every time I’ve worked with him. A couple of his brothers did express surprise when they saw an early cut of This Is It. They couldn’t believe that was MJ going full out like that. They told me he always used to try and save it for the show. I guess MJ felt he had something to prove. In my opinion, he was well on his way to doing it too. There is no way to fake what he did in This Is It. That was MJ doing what he did best. He was working his way back up to being show ready and those last few nights he was on! And he knew it! I don’t see any reason why we would not have made it through those dates. He even talked about the possibility of extending the tour in another country. That said it all to me.
Valmai: Looking back on all the love that has been expressed for your friend since he died, what do you imagine he would say about that?
Michael: I don’t really have to imagine. I know he would be very humble about it. He would embrace it and wallow in it. Even from the hypocrites. MJ only wanted to be loved for the art he created. I know he was hurt by all of the tabloid attention and paparazzi stalking him, but he understood it. He just wanted to be judged fairly and to have the attention he garnered to be more balanced. He was a giving and loving person and wanted that in return. As his friend, I will never try to deify him. He was only a man and not a deity, albeit an extraordinary man.
Valmai: If you could have time to spend with him today what would you say to him? What would be very important for him to know?
Michael: There is not a day that I don’t think about MJ. Not one day since he passed. We will be linked forever and I’m good with that. I don’t really like to live my life in hypothetical, but if he were here the most important thing he would need to know is that his children are doing well and look as though they are going to be extraordinary world citizens. He would be most happy about that. All other issues would be secondary to him. I’d also let him know his true friends have never abandoned him and would back it up with actions and deeds, not just words. Then, we’d probably laugh a lot and go get something to eat from a place we liked to have lunch. I’d enjoy that immensely.
Valmai: Have you experienced his spirit with you as so many others have?
Michael: Yes, but not in the way you might think. I experienced it when he was here. There is a moment in This Is It when we’re working on “Earth Song”. MJ is explaining what he wants and then he tells me when to “start that piano.” At the very moment he gives a thumb up to me, I felt something. I remembered it as I drove home from rehearsal that night. I forgot about it until we started making the film. As soon as I saw it, I got the exact same feeling I did the first night it happened. Transferring of energy is real amongst creative beings, but that was something else.
Valmai: What is the one thing that you will always consider to be your fondest moment with Michael?
Michael: I have many fond moments with MJ. He was just that way. One of my favorite moments is when he and I were working on the set list in the beginning of rehearsals, even before we had a band and dancers. We talked about how the show should flow and how we were like roller coaster designers. That’s what he wanted his show to feel like- a roller coaster ride. The warm moment for me was when he showed me his personal hand written notes about the set; he pulled out his reading glasses. I looked at him and smiled and he said, “What”? I said nothing and we just kept working. It was great to see his humanity on display. He was always so complete in public; it was cool to see him a little vulnerable. It was also cool to know that our relationship was changing to something more than just a music director/star relationship. He felt very comfortable around me and I appreciated that. He knew I didn’t want anything from him other than to see him back on top. Those glasses affirmed it to me.
Valmai: What do you think is Michael’s greatest legacy?
Michael: That’s hard to say. His art means different things to different people. For me, his legacy is probably his simplicity. Never in my career and probably in the history of music, has an artist affected so many human beings simultaneously. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from fans telling me that their 2, 3, 4 or 5 year-old children have discovered Michael’s music. This is just extraordinary to me. What is it about his music that appeals to so many people? He used to say to me, “When you’re coming up with new arrangements for the songs, make sure they’re simple.” He would say, “They gotta be able to hum it. If they can’t hum it’s too complicated.” He wanted his music to be sung by 8 to 80 year-olds. He succeeded!
Valmai: What do you think of the Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait? Is it something you think he would have liked and approved of?
Michael: I think it’s a great thing, this Tribute Portrait! It’s brilliant in its construct and I can only imagine MJ would have loved it. I’m honored to be part of the dedication.
Valmai: With the list of credits to your name Michael, you must be very much in demand. Can you share what you are working on at present? Any big things on the horizon?
Michael: I’ve been extremely blessed thus far in my career. It is not an easy thing to make a living at something you love to do and I don’t take it for granted. I’m humbled everyday at my good fortune. Presently I’m the music director for Lopez Tonight, George Lopez’s late night talk show on TBS. We are having a great time and we’re slowly trying to change late night. I have a few new artists I’m developing and recording a record with my band on the TBS show, The Ese Vatos. I also have many philanthropic things going on. I’m just trying to stay healthy and rest as much as possible so I can do everything I want to do. I’m a workaholic! But, what a blessing it is to do this for a living.
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