Soul, Rhythm & Blues, Bebop and Hip-Hop: Back on the Block at 30

Quincy Jones’s Grammy-laden 1989 album was an unqualified triumph 

Quincy Jones Back On The Block, Qwest/Warner Bros. 1989

Quincy Jones is the greatest producer of all time; that should be known as simple fact.

Above Phil Spector, above George Martin, above Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, above L.A. Reid and Babyface — above them all towers Quincy Jones. The man has produced everyone from Lesley Gore to Dizzy Gillespie to Donna Summer and, of course, Michael Jackson; the breadth and depth of his career is utterly unmatched. 

1989’s Back on the Block was Jones’s well-deserved, Grammy-conquering victory lap. The album won an astounding seven Grammys, encompassing everything from Best Jazz Fusion Performance (“Birdland”) to Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (the title track) and the big prize, Album of the Year. His first artist album in eight years went platinum in the U.S., topped both the R&B and Jazz album charts, and hit #9 on Billboard’s pop albums chart. But none of that is the best thing about Back on the Block; the best thing about the album is what an absolute blast it is.

 

VIDEO: Quincy Jones feat. Ray Charles and Chaka Khan “I’ll Be Good To You”

You don’t even have to start at the beginning of the album. Start with its first single, a cover of the smooth 1976 Brothers Johnson soul smash “I’ll Be Good to You” (#1 R&B/#3 Hot 100), sung this time around by R&B titans Ray Charles and Chaka Khan. But what Jones did is to take those two legends and put them in a nearly New Jack Swing arrangement, and the results are ebullient. Jones produced the original, and with this remake, he took the song back to the top of the R&B chart (and to #18 on the pop chart). 

In lesser hands, an album that jumps from adult R&B (the Siedah Garrett-sung “I Don’t Go for That”) to jazz (a magnificent cover-cum-jam session of “Birdland” featuring George Benson, James Moody, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan) to hip-hop (the aforementioned title track, which includes raps from Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, and Melle Mel in the unsung posse cut of ’89) would sound schizophrenic. But in the hands of Quincy Jones, it flows naturally, like a mixtape.

 

AUDIO: Quincy Jones feat. Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, and Melle Mel “Back On The Block”

And that’s not even mentioning two of the album’s loveliest, quietest moments. “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)” is a gorgeous, jazz piece with wordless vocals from Take 6 and playing from such luminaries as Gerald Albright on sax, George Duke on Fender Rhodes, Benson on guitar, and Herbie Hancock on keys, and it’s smoooooth (verging on smooth jazz, granted, but I don’t see that as a problem). 

Then there’s the album’s monster ballad and closing track, “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite).” Vocal duties are handled by the slow jam A-team of El Debarge, James Ingram, Al B. Sure!, and Barry White, and they are predictably immaculate. The song itself was penned by Jones, Debarge, Garrett, and long-time Jones compatriot Rod Temperton. Jones’s production wraps it all in a cashmere blanket, and it’s six minutes of sexy. “Garden” was the second single from Back on the Block and its second #1 on the R&B chart (#31 Hot 100), and is to this day a Quiet Storm classic. 

 

VIDEO: Quincy Jones and friends perform “The Secret Garden” at the 1991 Soul Train Music Awards

A moment to discuss Q’s secret weapon, Siedah Garrett. She has writing credits on five songs on Back on the Block, and her voice appears (either lead or backing vocals) on seven. She likely came into the Jones orbit via Michael Jackson’s Bad, on which she co-wrote “Man in the Mirror” and sang “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” as a duet with Jackson. Because he knows talent when he sees — and hears — it, Jones used her all over Block to great effect. Her voice fits nicely into that pop-soul pocket that he’s such a fan of, and her songwriting, obviously, is fairly impeccable. 

Quincy Jones feat Siedah Garrett “I Don’t Go For That” single, Qwest/Warner Bros. 1989

“Impeccable” is, in fact, a great one-word descriptor for Back on the Block. There are no loose threads, whether in songwriting, performance, or production. The album sounds perfect. From Vaughan to Khan to then-newcomer Tevin Campbell, Jones knew what he wanted from everyone involved — and he got it. That could’ve resulted in an airless album, but no, because Quincy Jones is the greatest producer of all-time (I’m saying it again for those in the back). Block isn’t just one of his best albums — it’s his most fun.

 

AUDIO: Quincy Jones Back On The Block (full album)

 

Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep is a pop critic with three different music blogs, and a former contributor to Stylus, Seattle Weekly, and SPIN. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow him on Twitter @Thomasinskeep1.

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