Simon Napier-Bell: George Michael & Recording Careless Whisper
Simon Napier-Bell: “I had the idea of using Jerry Wexler, the great producer from Atlantic Records, so I sent him the song and he loved it. ‘Let’s record it at Muscle Shoals,’ he suggested.
George and I flew to New York, then to Nashville, then hired a car and drove sixty miles down the freeway to Muscle Shoals where we met Jerry, who George charmed with his nice manners and respect. It was difficult to be anything but respectful to Jerry, a man who’d produced literally hundreds of the greatest soul records ever made, the entire output of Atlantic Records in the sixties and seventies.
For us, he’d assembled a typically top-notch crew of Muscle Shoals session musicians and they made a backing track as perfect as one had come to expect from them. When it was done, Jerry worked on George’s voice.
The next morning, with the backing track done and George’s vocal recorded, Jerry had booked the top sax player in LA to fly in and do the solo. He arrived at eleven and should have been gone by twelve. Instead, after two hours, he was still there while everyone in the studio shuddered with embarrassment. He just couldn’t play the opening riff the way George wanted it, the way it had been on the demo. But that had been made two years earlier by a friend of George’s who lived round the corner and played sax for fun in the pub.
The saxophonist from LA appeared to be playing the part perfectly, but each time George told him, ‘No, it’s still not right, you see….’ and he would lower his head to the talkback microphone and patiently hum the part to him yet again. ‘It has to twitch upwards a little just there! See …? And not too much.’
After over an hour of this, I wandered off to the studio’s poolroom and idly knocked coloured balls around the table. Then Jerry joined me. ‘What d’you think?’ I asked. ‘Is there really something George wants that’s different from what the sax player is playing?’
Jerry thought so. ‘Definitely! I’ve seen things like this before. There’s some tiny nuance that the sax player is somehow not getting right. Although you and I can’t hear what it is, it may be the very thing that will make the record a hit. The success of pop records is so ephemeral, so unbelievably unpredictable, we just can’t take the risk of being impatient. But this sax player’s not going to get it, is he!’
He left the room and when I followed him back to the studio a few minutes later the sax player was packing up his instrument, ashen faced, feeling humiliated. And I don’t think George felt any better either.
A few hours later George must have felt even worse. Another top sax player had arrived, this time from New York, and again George had hummed the piece through talkback and given instructions. ‘Twitch upwards there! But not too much.’
And the same thing had happened – another hour of horrible embarrassment.
Eventually we finished the record off without the sax solo and went back to Nashville to over-dub strings, then flew back to London. But when we listened to it at home we decided it wasn’t just the sax solo that was missing, there was something missing from the track too. It had no kick to it, no balls.
So we re-recorded the whole thing at Advision using George’s regular live band with Deon Estes on bass and Hugh Burns on guitar. And once they’d got the track right, George called his mate who came in and played the sax part just once. Perfectly! Which is the intro we all know and love that sold millions.
He probably played with incorrect fingering which gave it the unique feel George wanted. The American guys were just too good to get it.”
Simon Napier- Bell’s next book is TA-RA-RA-BOOM-DE-AY a complete history of the music business.
Pledge now by ordering a copy here: http://bit.ly/1aHZHMO