Quincy Jones: 5 key moments from his legendary career

On his 85th birthday, we look back on the producer's legendary career.

On his 85th birthday, we look back on the producer's legendary career.

A promotional photo of American composer and music producer Quincy Jones from the 1980s. (Photo by A&M Records/Getty Images)

Quincy Jones is 20th century popular culture.

The multi-hyphenate mogul was born Quincy Delight Jones Jr. on March 14, 1933, on the South Side of Chicago, and during his lifetime, he would go on to be directly involved with some of the most significant moments in pop culture. He turns 85 today, and if his recent, spellbinding interviews in Vulture and GQ are any indication, Jones shows no signs of slowing down.

While he says he plans to live to 110, it's awe-inspiring to think of what he's already accomplished during his lifetime, working with a who's who of artists from jazz (Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald) to soul and R&B (Ray Charles, Little Richard) to pop (Michael Jackson). And that's not counting his solo career as a trumpeter or his work behind the scenes producing or scoring Hollywood films.  

His ubiquity in popular culture has deemed many to compare him to Forrest Gump, or as he told GQ, "Ghetto Gump." If it happened, there's a good chance Jones was there behind the scenes. Below, we take a look at five of those moments.

5. 'Fly me to the Moon'

Jones got his first big break as a composer, conductor and arranger in Cannonball Adderley's band, which was followed by a particularly fruitful relationship with the Count Basie Orchestra. It was here that he came across the song that would bring his career to new heights. His arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon," a jazz standard written in 1954, was recorded in 1963 by Basie, then again a year later by Frank Sinatra, who was accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra. By then, the song had already been recorded some 100 times, but Jones' arrangement, which gave it just the right amount of swing, helped turn "Fly Me To the Moon" into the cultural juggernaut it is today. In 1969, when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, this is the version they played on a portable cassette player, making it the first song to be played on the moon.

4. Miles & Quincy: Live at Montreux

In 1991, Jones did the unthinkable. He convinced Miles Davis to revisit his old catalogue for the first time in three decades. Davis was always looking forward, but for Jones, he agreed to look back for a special performance at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival. Jones conducted an ensemble that included the Gil Evans Orchestra and the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, and the resulting recording of that performance ended up being Davis' final album. He died just three months after that flawed but inspiring performance, and the album hit number one on the Billboard jazz albums chart.

3. 'We are the World'

What else can be said about this feat of logistics and altruism? In 1985, Jones produced the charity single that was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and featured a seemingly impossible cast of great performers, among them Stevie Wonder, Tina Tuner, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Diana Ross and so many more. It is still one of the bestselling singles of all time — it raised more than $63-million US for humanitarian aid to Africa and the U.S. — and sparked a wave of copycat charity supergroups, including Canada's contribution, "Tears are Not Enough."


This is technically not one moment, but more a culmination of four separate key moments in Jones' life. In 2016, he won a Tony award for the stage production of The Color Purple (he also co-produced the Steven Spielberg-directed film), which made him part of a very exclusive club of people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (hence, EGOT). To date, only 18 other people hold this honour.

On top of that, out of all the people to hold the EGOT, Jones has the most amount of awards, period, and is the most nominated artist in Grammy history, with 79 (Paul McCartney has 78). To showcase his diversity, Jones' nominated fields include jazz, pop, R&B and rap, but also spoken word, arranging, children's music, theatre and visual media. He even executive produced the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for an Emmy because, well, of course he did.

In total, Jones holds 28 Grammy awards, but he also won an Oscar in 1994 (the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award), an Emmy in 1997 (outstanding music composition for a series, for Roots) and a Tony in 2016 (best revival of a musical for the Color Purple).

1. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones changed pop music. Jackson certainly had all the talent to take him to the top, but it was his work with Jones that truly allowed him to turn his back on his youth and morph into the biggest pop star in the world. The two met on the set of the hit musical The Wiz, where Jackson played the Scarecrow and Jones was (of course) the music supervisor and producer, and they hit it off. Jones agreed to produce Jackson's next album, and that relationship ended up breaking records and changing the very shape of pop music. First came 1979's Off the Wall, followed by Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987). Jones' influence is seen throughout MJ's new sound — which blended funk, disco, rock, pop and jazz — as well as in the team behind some of his biggest hits, such as "Thriller" writer Rod Temperton, who was recruited by Jones. Their partnership will go down as one of the greatest in music history, and for what it's worth, Thriller is still the bestselling album of all time — 36 years after its release.


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