Today marks twenty years since Michael Jackson’s most daring, confrontational, controversial, personal, ambitious, and in my opinion underrated album was released. Originally intended as a greatest hits package with just a few new songs, HIStory ultimately became a double-disc masterpiece featuring fifteen brand new songs.
The album was clearly an important one for and to Jackson – a musical autobiography if you will. Since Jackson himself is not here to bask in the celebrations of the album’s 20th anniversary, and the co-executors of his estate and Sony Music have chosen not to commemorate its release, I decided to reach out to the personnel who worked hand-in-hand with Jackson on the album, giving them the opportunity to share a few anecdotes and insights from their time creating HIStory. Studio engineers Brian Vibberts and Brad Sundberg were kind enough to contribute. Their contributions are as follows:
Engineer Brian Vibberts on HIStory & Michael’s meeting with Prince
This album was made in a time when Michael Jackson could do anything he wanted creatively without worrying about the budget. In the words of Jurassic Park, he “spared no expense…” Recording choirs, orchestras, multiple guitarists and drummers for each song to then choose the right fit, using multiple studio rooms.
Since Michael did not have to worry about the budget, he was free to use his imagination and explore the sonic landscapes with sounds and rhythms. This type of exploration takes time and, in the studio, time is money; money spent!
On July 14, 1994, Prince came to visit Michael in the early afternoon to discuss recording a song together. It was five years after the release of Prince and Madonna’s duet (“Love Song”), so he was probably more open to the idea. Michael and Prince had discussed doing a song before (the song “Bad”) but nothing had ever been recorded.On that day, Prince arrived with two huge bodyguards. The three of them walked right by me and into Michael’s lounge, which was the Studio 3 lounge at the Hit Factory at 421 West 54th Street in New York City. It was a private meeting, so I continued my work in Studio 4 – working on new music for HIStory.
Prince talked with Michael for a few hours before leaving. That night, Prince played a show at the Palladium at 126 East 14th Street, which held between 2500-3000 people.
Prince’s set list that night:
2- The Jam
3- I Believe In You
6- Days of Wild / Hair
7- Now / Babies Makin’ Babies
8- The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
9- Billy Jack Bitch
11- Love Sign (with Nona Gaye)
13- Mary Don’t You Weep (with Vernon Reid from Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz)
14- None of Your Business (with Vernon Reid from Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz)
Encore: Get Wild
Prince only visited that one time during the HIStory sessions. No songs were ever worked on, written, or recorded for this potential collaboration, and unfortunately there is no Michael and Prince duet in the vault.
On a side note, since I am a big fan of Prince and of course Michael, I really wanted this collaboration to happen! I think it would have been fantastic. Michael and Prince would have brought out the best in each other musically.
I believe that HIStory was the last album that Michael made with complete creative freedom and control. By having multiple studios working at the same time he was able to go from room to room throughout the Hit Factory and keep the creative energy flowing.
There were quite a few songs that we worked on, all in various states of completion. I believe Sony should release a commemorative package with an extra disc that has some of these extra songs.
For an album that started out as a greatest hits package with only three new songs, it turned out to be a full album in its own right, with 15 new songs that have become known as some of Michael’s most personal work.
I am sincerely proud to have been part of the HIStory team.
– Brian Vibberts, Engineer on HIStory.
Brad Sundberg on testifying for the King of Pop & HIStoric blizzards
There are two very vivid memories I have from early in the project: One about snow, and the other about U.S. Federal Court.
First, when we arrived in New York in early January of ’94, the city was being hammered with blizzard after blizzard. I seem to remember a record sixteen blizzards that winter. For a California boy like me it was pure magic! I loved the snow – but to be cool you slog through it, pull up you coat and keep your head down. Still, I loved it.
Barely weeks into the project some of the album personnel – including Michael – were sent to Denver to testify in Federal Court regarding the ridiculous “Dangerous” songwriting lawsuit. I will never forget how Michael’s legal team prepped me for trail. You know what they said? “Tell the truth, nothing more, and keep your answers to yes and no. But most importantly – tell the truth.”
It was so pure and honest. Sure I was nervous – it was Federal Court after all! But we had nothing to hide. Michael’s testimony was funny, endearing and honest. I guess I did ok also.
Above: Audio recording of Michael Jackson testifying in U.S. Federal Court regarding the authorship of his song “Dangerous.” The recording features Jackson describing his creative process by beatboxing several bass melodies and a snare drum, and singing several vocal melodies and lyrics. Captivating listening!
It was sort of an odd kick-off for the HIStory project, but it gave us plenty of stories to laugh about over the many hours that lay ahead for us all that year – in the studio.
It was refreshing to see New York covered in a clean white blanket of snow. It was rewarding to work with a legal team who played no games and insisted only on pure truth. It was always a good day when Michael would walk in and greet me with a sincere hug. It was a very good year.
– Brad Sundberg, Studio Technical Director and Engineer on HIStory.
Damien Shields is the author of the book Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind about The King of Pop’s artistry, genius, and creative process in the recording studio. Click here to order your copy today – also available via Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, and Google Play. Follow Damien on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with Michael Jackson-related news.