Narada Michael Walden Tells The Stories Behind Eight Great Tracks He’s Worked On, From Mahavishnu Orchestra To Mariah Carey
“It’s daunting being behind a microphone — I don’t care if you’re Aretha,” Narada Michael Walden admitted. Known best for producing and co-writing material for Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Kenny G, and Mariah Carey, Walden has also released several solo albums, the best of which, 1979’s The Dance Of Life, remains an essential disco release anchored by a band whose chops rivaled Chic’s. In addition, he’s an excellent drummer whose stint in John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra coincided with that band’s intermittently beguiling jazz-rock-New-Age fusion.
Advice from the former Miles Davis sideman still resonates. “John McLaughlin would always go, ‘Listen,'” Walden said. “Sometimes after a concert he’d say, ‘You don’t listen.’ So I tried hard to learn what he meant. I realized people need to be loved and listened to. If you do that, molecules and endorphins take over.”
If Walden has a recurring fascination, it’s with producing albums for women who assert their sexuality, often with an ebullience that their male colleagues lack. From Stacy Lattisaw’s teenaged delight in plumbing the depths of her feelings and Whitney Houston’s talent for purging desire of desperation to Aretha Franklin and Lisa Fischer’s adult command over their self-presentation, Walden’s productions validated these women’s will to power with contemporary technology, sometimes to a fault (Houston sounds trapped in a house of chintz on 1987’s Whitney).
“To be current as a producer, man, you had to take off your hat and be a wizard,” he said. “Prince and Michael Jackson had come along with the sound you had to have to be competitive on drum machines. Not just the synths — it was all the sounds you fed into the machines to get the effects that would make you go, ‘What was that?'”
I recently spoke by phone with Walden, 70, about his most notable recordings, not long after he ended a stint drumming and co-writing songs with Journey, whose new album Freedom came out in July. He had warm memories of the period he spent in Miami jamming with the likes of Hiram Bullock, Pat Metheny, and Jaco Pastorius, during the city’s mid-’70s heyday. The spirit of those times animates a figure whose conversation mixes the anecdotal and the musicological. Proud of his contributions to pop, Walden comes off as a musician who’s a fan first.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – “River Of My Heart” (1976)
NARADA MICHAEL WALDEN: We recorded this song in a chateau in France way out in the country. The studio has open windows so you can see everything as you’re working; it makes you want to record beautiful songs. It is a song composed with Cynthia Anderson, who wrote beautiful lyrics. I would play the piano and sing my melodies and she’d say, “Why don’t we call it ‘River Of My Heart’?” When it came time to record Inner Worlds, John said, “Remember that song ‘River Of My Heart’? We should record that.”
Narada Michael Walden – “I Shoulda Loved Ya” (1979)
WALDEN: The third album saved my career with a disco jam. So I’m really keen on making a dance record. That’s what I had to do to make it in this world or get dropped by Atlantic Records. I got [bassist] T.M. Stevens in my little rehearsal hall in Oakland. I said, “T.M., every time I hit the cymbal, you change the bass line.” Then the Good Lord said, “Call [lyricist] Allee Willis.” She was hot at this time after working with Earth, Wind & Fire.
Stacy Lattisaw – “Attack Of The Name Game” (1982)
WALDEN: I was very taken with the Tom Tom Club and their vibe. In New York everyone who dug the underground [loved “Genius Of Love”]. I just rode the wave. I thought if I could take that concept of “The Name Game” for Stacy and make Stacy’s little brother a Martian and her dialogue back and forth with the Martian – you know, bein’ out there with the Tom Tom Club groove going on. I cut it with [bassist] Randy Jackson and my hot cats, and off we went. It wasn’t ’til years later that Randy called and said, “Mariah Carey’s gonna sample that jam for a new song [1999’s “Heartbreaker“], so you better hold on for money.”
Aretha Franklin – “Freeway Of Love” & “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” (1985)
WALDEN: [Lyricist] Preston Glass was my right hand. Every producer needs help. If I needed five new songs in one night, he’d write five songs. I have to thank Preston in every interview because he said, “Why don’t you take that ‘Freeway Of Love’ you wrote for your own record and give it to Aretha?” I didn’t want Aretha so R&B-ish that we couldn’t get a #1 pop record, and that was my goal.
Aretha needed a lot of love. She had just come out of the death of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. But when you hear sing, man… bow down to her! When she realized we were both there to serve the music, we became best friends. It was like, “Whaddya wanna eat? You want a cheeseburger? Fried chicken?” Cuz now we’re gonna make the music great. She doesn’t wanna be beat up by the music. But I also got smart. As she warms up down the octave — she’ll sing every song down the octave way low, four times through, the whole record — she’ll finally say, “I’m ready to go.” When she says that to you, she’s ready to make a smash. And it is. She’ll do that for you two or three times. Then I’d go, “I want one or two more choices for the ending, just fireworks.” Or: “Let’s go back to the first verse and make sure it has got everything I need for the pop sensibility: diction, not too bluesy, not too fast.” And then she’ll be like, “Ohhh. You’re lookin’ for the straight reading. I’ll go back and sing it for you closer to the melody.” And it would give me another track to work with.
Whitney Houston — “How Will I Know?” (1985)
WALDEN: I turned Whitney Houston down at first. They were like, “No, no, no, this is Cissy Houston’s daughter, she’s gonna be huge.” I knew Cissy from working on my solo albums. I thought, “Oh, there was this 11-year-old girl in the studio, that was probably her daughter.” When I got the song, I thought it was a cool chorus but there were no verses. So I asked the writers if I could put a verse in it. So I went to the piano and got a melody and some verse vibes. I called Whitney and went, “I hope you can sing high.” Because I’m gonna make the opening line [‘There’s a boyyyy I know…’] high.” And she said, “Oh yeah, I sing high.” So I flew over to New York and Media Sound Studios and she came and looked like a million dollars. I was just in awe of how she looked at 19. And she knew the song, she had studied it. I’d go, “Damn! Sing it again!” When I had, like, four good tracks of her singing it, I said, okay, harmonize this little bit over here, double this little bit here, and come listen to it.” That’s when I realized who I was dealing with. She’s so gorgeous, but she’s so confident – she’s staring me down like a fighter!
Then I go, “I love your mother. Why don’t you call her up here to sing backup?” And she did. But we’re still missing something, so I said, “Whitney, why don’t you go out there and join your mother.” And that’s the sound of “How Will I Know” – her and her mom together.
Jermaine Stewart — “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” (1986)
WALDEN: A special cat. Like my dad. He’s from Chicago. The Chicago blood is so thick – it’s part of my sound. If you listen to Curtis Mayfield and the Five Stairsteps with that sound, “Don’t Waste Your Time”! Those chord changes. And we were always looking for hits that would turn the kids on and be, like, PG enough. So Preston Glass is very clever at how he worded that thing so it could be fun – you know, like Disney parks and Knott’s Berry Farm. Jermaine was like a male Whitney Houston. On fire. Electric. “I love Jody Watley, let’s do a song for Jody Watley!” On the street girls would stop him because he was a star. Like Whitney, he loved the sound of his voice. I was so happy that Clive Davis and Arista Records got it, to push him. I’m sorry he didn’t live real long to see all the love people had for him.
Mariah Carey – “Vision Of Love” (1990)
WALDEN: It’s the last note a person sings that makes a perfectionist – because it can ring off in the echo. Down to the last note she’d sing would be in tune. That’s when I knew she was a perfectionist. One night we got together out back at one of those LA hotels. Stevie Wonder, Mariah, seven or eight of us have this game where Stevie gets the person to sing 30 seconds of each song and you move on, as long as you can. Mariah could go for hours. That’s how deep her encyclopedia of music is. She could go for hours with Stevie Wonder and never run out of songs. She was a scholar. She knew R&B, she knew New York music. She loved Michael Jackson. She adored George Michael. She adored Whitney. And she’s a great lyricist.