The City of New Orleans is situated in the state of Louisiana along the Mississippi River. It is a very touristic and pleasant city that music lovers recognize as the birthplace of Jazz. That former French colony is a stronghold of African-American culture, as it is also the birthplace of artists like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, for instance. Michael Jackson’s fans wouldn’t necessarily make the connection between this city and their idol. Still, while visiting, they might come across James McField, a musician who was born and grew up there. He was then the Jacksons’ pianist during the Destiny Tour and that’s why I was willing to discuss his memories, 40 years later. I am pretty sure everybody will enjoy reading about his experience ! Thank you so much, Sir !
First of all, can you tell us about your passion for music ? How it started and how you became a professional musician on piano and synthesizer.
That’s a funny story because when I was 9 or 10 years old, my mother bought a piano and I had never played music before and I did not want to. I said : « No, I want a new bicycle ! » So when she bought the piano, a friend came over who knew how to play something easy on the piano. When he played and showed me how to do it, I learned it instantly and I began to believe that piano might be easy for me. Then I went to my first lesson and I saw there were going to be other students so when I got to the piano and the teacher started to teach me, I basically did everything that I saw him doing with the other students immediately. So I could tell that piano was going to be a good thing for me – I realized that I could learn and master the piano very easily and that’s what really happened.
From there, there was a period when I was about 12 years old, one summer we were on vacation from school and I started practising the piano for 12 hours every single day. I just took enough time to eat something and went right back to the piano ! So when I was back to school, I was a little unhappy because I couldn’t practise for 12 hours – that was actually frustrating for me because I just wanted to continue playing the piano all day long ! Basically, that’s when the passion came on. Throughout that time I had piano teachers continuously and I actually had 9 different piano teachers at least for another eleven or twelve years. I really focused on classical music – that’s what I play the most. Beethoven, Bach, Chopin… I play popular music too, of course, but classical music helped me get to the point where I knew that I could play any type of music that I wanted to play.
I went to the University of New Orleans where my major was Piano Performance but before that, when I was in 8th Grade in school, at 12 or 13 years old, one of my music teachers thought that I needed special attention because they noticed and appreciated my talent so he set me up to go to one of the local universities. I would then go to Junior High School every day but not all day so that I could go to Loyola University to study the piano in their Music Department. So before I was officially a university student, I was in the Music Department. Actually I did this with three different universities when I was in Junior High School and High School – I went to Loyola University, then Tulane University and finally Dillard University. I would leave school in the middle of the day and then spend the rest of my time studying music at the local university. When I graduated from High School, I went to the University of New Orleans.
Regarding synthesizers, it happened on the way because when I was 12 years old, we didn’t have synthesizers yet but I started to play in local bands in nightclubs. This is something that wouldn’t happen today because it’s illegal for a 12-year-old to play music in a nightclub but things were different then in New Orleans and lots of people my age or at least younger than 18 were able to play in one band or another in nightclubs. We played Rhythm and Blues, Rock’n’roll etc so by the time synthesizers came along, it was natural for me to play the synthesizer too.
How did you feel about the Jackson brothers before you even knew and worked with them ?
Well, I joined Michael Jackson and his brothers when I was 21 years old, but when they first became famous, I think I must have been 11 or 12 so I was a big fan of the Jackson 5 ! Before I ever met them, I went to see them play at least three times in New Orleans – I bought my own tickets and usually a friend of mine would go with me. I loved them ! I thought they were great !
I actually met them through a lady that I knew. She had a singing group – it was a four women singing group. Her name was Sandra Stark and she worked for the Jacksons TV show at the time. I think their TV show was just called « The Jacksons » and it had eight episodes. So she worked at their office at the TV studio and she found out that they were looking for a piano player. She knew me very well because I had helped her singing group to perfect their music. I would play the piano for them and I taught them how to stand and improve their sound so they were fascinated with me because I did much more with them than some of the other people that they had worked with. So when she found out that the Jacksons needed a piano player, she just started talking about me and telling them : « You need to hire this guy ! » I had moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 or 19 years old and met this lady and her singing group there, but by that time I had been back to New Orleans for about one or two years. So she called me down here in New Orleans and told me that she had an opportunity for me to come out to play for the Jacksons. But of course they had to meet me and I had to audition because I hadn’t really played for anyone famous before or at least that famous, you know !
How were you hired as a keyboardist on the « Destiny Tour » ?
Well, basically my friend said they would like what I did and that they would hire me but I still had to audition. So I went to Los Angeles and obviously there were other people also auditioning and I realized I would have to beat them so the Jacksons hire me to be their piano player !
At that time I was just the piano and keyboard player, and the clavinet too. It was later on that I began to write the arrangements for the live show and became the music director. For one year I did play and we had a music director that was already with them but he left after one year so I became the music director.
What are your memories of the rehearsal sessions and the first moments you shared with the band ?
Rehearsals at that time used to take place at their family home. Michael, LaToya and Janet still lived there as well as Randy. The other brothers were married and gone as well as the elder sister, Rebbie. As a big fan of the Jackson 5, I used to see pictures of them in that rehearsing studio at the house so when I walked in there I was in the exact same place with Michael and his brothers ! That was a very exciting moment ! It was also very interesting to see how they were doing things because I wasn’t used to going rehearsals and being paid for that and punching with the time clock because that’s what we did but it was the first time I had ever done anything like that – it’s not like that in New Orleans. At first we would just have rehearsals for three or four hours but then we ended up doing it for twelve hours a day which was an interesting amount of time ! For about the last six weeks before the tour started, we would just play over and over again for twelve hours a day because everything had to be absolutely perfect ! But it was a lot of fun and because I used to play twelve hours a day on my own, that was just perfect to me ! This showed me that I was on the right track when someone that famous did the same thing ! When I was 12 years old, I got that idea from a local symphony conductor who talked about how he spent twelve hours a day practising his music so that kind of inspired me to really do it ! I thought : « I’ll do the same thing ! » and voilà !
Then the Jacksons doing it showed me that they were really a professional group because they put that time in, they made sure everything was right and they wanted the best show that there could be, and that’s what they did !
Did some of the brothers personality features stick out from the start ?
When I first joined with the group, I had never really known too much about their personality – they didn’t talk about some of their personal matters as much on TV. Before I met them, I read in the magazines that Michael was shy and that Marlon was always making jokes, that sort of things. But I don’t remember too much about the rest of them. So when I actually met them, I saw that it was true !
I had never really heard Michael speak a lot – he would answer some quick easy questions sometimes on TV – and it was a surprise to me how he sounded when we started seeing him on television and hearing how he really spoke. It was almost as if he was trying to hide behind his words a little bit, like he didn’t want people to see inside of him so he kind of kept his words in his mouth – something like that which was definitely part of his shyness.
I also noticed that they ALL loved to play practical jokes on people. They would watch the joke unfold and then they suddenly would be laughing and giggling ! They did this all the time ! Some jokes would end up with water all over and they loved that kind of stuff. Once Jackie wrote a sign saying something kind of silly about me and he put tape on it because he knew I was going to their office so he put it on my back ! They all started laughing because they knew that one of them had done it !
Also, I think I had read somewhere that Tito liked to work on cars and he really did. When we would go on the road, sometimes he would ask me to come with him to junkyards in certain cities where they used to build lots of old cars because he wanted parts for a Ford Model T and a Ford Model A, very old antique cars, the first ones they made. The Model A was the first masterpiece car and he had one at home. So when he found some parts he needed he would take them home and try to work on the car with his hands which were rough ! I have soft and very gentle hands and so did Michael and maybe the rest of the brothers. But Tito and Marlon, they have very rough hands. I grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of the men including my father worked very hard with their hands and Tito’s hands reminded me of them. His hands were like that, which kind of surprised me because they were the hands of someone who honestly and truly did a lot of hard work with his hands. Marlon is thin and his hands are not as rough as Tito’s but they were a little rough too.
Did you have your say regarding the selection of the songs and their arrangement, or did you have to follow the musical direction that the brothers wanted ?
No, we did not have a say when it came to the songs’ selection – they wouldn’t tell you that you could have a say because it was exactly what they had in mind at first. Now, when it came down to the arrangements, once I had become the music director they would let me handle that. I personally asked them a lot of questions and checked with them a lot, even when I was just playing the piano, to make sure I was on the same way that they were. Then after that first year I really had a feeling that I was in tune with them so they just let me handle it from there. I would basically write every part for every instrument. Regarding the rhythm sections, it would be what I wrote down but it would be more copying from listening to the record. Some of the musicians were really comfortable with reading the music and then memorizing but some of the rhythm sections members were just mostly playing by listening. So it was my job and my responsibility of knowing every note that every musician had to play because I had to make sure that the ones who didn’t read the music had the right note(s). I would sit at the piano and say : « No, not a B, but a B flat. » – or whatever it was at the time – and make the correction.
At first we didn’t have any horns – it was just the Jacksons, myself, a separate guitar player from Tito and a bass player. That was the whole band. But then for the second tour we got some horn players so I began to write the arrangements for all the horn players and even when I had left the group, they were using my horn arrangements.
Any favorite song or special moment of the show that you still remember ?
It’s interesting because I didn’t say this to Michael too much, but I used to really like the old Jackson 5 songs. That’s because I was such a fan when I was younger. It was exciting to me to be playing those same songs with them that I was so fond of when I was growing up ! But because I heard Michael say it a number of times, I knew that Michael was trying to prove that the new songs were better than the old songs. He wanted to demonstrate that to people in the music industry like to the people who ran their record company. They were already with Epic when I joined them. I never mentioned to Michael that I liked the old songs because I knew how important it was to him to show how they had outgrown the old songs, you know !
I also liked watching them perform because the songs were great to play but as a classical piano player the playing of the songs was really no challenge – they were very easy to play. I didn’t get real fulfillment in terms of playing the songs but being on stage as a part of the group was what was really fulfilling and exciting to me !
In terms of my favorite parts of the show, it would have to do with my position on the stage. There were keyboards on both sides of the stage and sometimes I would be on the left side of the stage, sometimes I would be on the right side of the stage. In both cases, there would be at least four keyboards on each side of the stage. They would be on a right angle with two keyboards facing each other and two other keyboards on a 90° angle from them. What I am leading up to is that when I was playing I would have to turn from one keyboard to the other on a 90° angle so there were certain times of the show when I coulnd’t see what they were doing because my back would be to them. Then I would turn to the other keyboards and I would see what they were doing ! So I could only see them at certain moments during the show and when I would see a video, that was fulfilling to see the parts that I had always missed ! But still my favorite part of the show itself was when they played the Hits Medley !
The first part of the tour was in Europe and in Africa. Could you feel that people over the world were already getting enthusiastic about the band ?
Well, I spent about four years with them – it was from 1975 to 1979. The first live performance I played with them was in Caracas, Venezuela. We went to Europe and we toured the United States. We went to Hawai. When I started with them, they had « Let Me Show You The Way To Go » as their hit record. When I left the group was when « Off The Wall » had started to slow down. That was the period of time that I was with them.
That was just like when I used to see them on TV – with people screaming and crying and jumping up and down and trying to get close to them and everything ! That’s how it was in Caracas. What I would see was very exciting but personally I thought I took it all in stride – I was just focused on doing my job. I was mostly involved in handling my responsibility to play the music. Of course, I would pay attention to the fans but it was different from seeing it on TV when you just see the big crowds. When you’re there, the people are very close to you, you hear a different sound, they all jump on the limousine, they’re banging on it, they’re coming to the window right next to you and running behind it !… You feel you’re in the middle of a mob, you know. Some people say it’s scary but I didn’t find it scary – it was just interesting… The people were absolutely just as excited as I saw them on TV for all the shows they did in America and in Europe.
When the tour started again after a few months off, Michael Jackson had released his first solo album, « Off The Wall », produced by Epic. What about the public’s passion for Michael himself, leading more and more people to attend the shows ?
Yes, I did see that point clearly when it became more about Michael than it was about the rest of the brothers. People always came backstage asking for autographs. They would actually come to the band members and kind of pressured us to introduce them. I even had a case once when, I think Marlon was with me, a few people came to one of the hotel rooms to visit. They asked for an autograph so I said : « Oh, yeah, yeah, here’s Marlon right here ! » But one of the little guys said : « I don’t want that – I want Michael’s autograph ! » Right in front of Marlon Jackson ! So, yes, it was like it was changing and they could feel it too… But in reality it was always more about Michael, you know, and to a much greater extent – everything was Michael, even though the brothers were still there !…
The song « Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough » was then added to the setlist. During the rehearsals, did Michael give more instructions about it since it was a new song being played live for the first time ?
This is something I had never even thought about because he never did say that his songs were more important the the group’s songs. But he would describe them as the new songs and he would say that the new songs were more important than the old songs. That’s the way he put it. At the Motown 25th Anniversary, he said it and I had heard him say it many times before that. At some point the whole group left the stage and only Michael stayed and he said : « I really love those old songs but now is time for the new songs ! » Then he started doing the real Michael Jackson stuff ! So, that might have been what he meant the whole time…
Jonathan Moffett came along as the drummer on the second part of the « Destiny Tour ». Can you tell us about the way he joined the group of musicians ?
Well, Jonathan Moffett is from New Orleans too so I knew him before I got with the Jacksons. His family lived on the same street as mine, so when we were teenagers we lived about three or four blocks away. I brought Jonathan Moffett to the Jacksons because they needed a drummer. They had some other drummers coming to audition when I was the music director. Jonathan had moved to Los Angeles and he found me by luck. He was looking for me because all my friends in New Orleans knew that I was playing for Michael Jackson. So he and a couple of other friends of mine were in a car driving down the street I lived on because they knew it but they didn’t know the exact address. I had been gone to the grocery store at the corner and as I was walking back home I heard them screaming my name and there they were ! When we arrived at my place I said : « Man, you came at the right time because we need a drummer now and I know you can beat all these other guys ! » So I brought him in and he did an excellent job ! They loved him right away and he was in the group from then on !
Could you imagine that Jonathan would still be Michael Jackson’s drummer 30 years later ?
Yes, absolutely, that became a very important part of his life. He was very very happy to be there and they loved him too so it was not surprising that he was still with them after all that time. He would have gone to every place to be with that group. He’s done the best job at being a backup musician but also making it something to see. He has made himself highly visible and promoting himself as Michael Jackson’s drummer. He made sure he would document everything, taking pictures and videos and giving lots of contents to people. He is probably the best backup musician and self-promoter that I know !
As a conclusion, where does the « Destiny Tour » stand in your whole career ?
Well, my years with Michael Jackson of course are the most amazing years of my life ! Every day was exciting and it gave me a special perpective on life because everybody would treat me in such a special way. I understood that was just because how high-profiled the position was and I knew it didn’t make me any more special than anybody else but it was a very interesting experience to see how people treated me because of that. Actually they still do and as I am looking right now on my wall at pictures of Michael and me and at one of my platinum albums (which is « Off The Wall ») I can see it is still a big part of my life ! Everybody who knows me knows about this and when they introduce me they like to say : « This is my friend James McField – he was the musical director of Michael Jackson ! » It makes them feel good because when they introduce me, their friends know that they know somebody who knows Michael – that’s how powerful Michael’s influence was. Just having some association with him gives people a lot. So I’m glad that I could do that because it makes people happy and the experience that I had continues to make me happy and bring something to my life ! People that come to me for piano lessons love telling people : « My piano teacher was Michael Jackson’s piano player ! »
Like I said, I am a classical pianist and the actual art of playing the piano and playing classical music for me is the most fulfilling in terms of what I am naturally doing. So what I do personally is play as a solo pianist and play live for people. In a way it’s similar to what Liberace did or what Victor Borge did, because they played classical music but they did it as a showman pianist. That’s what I do. My life has always been extremely fulfilling because that’s what I was trained to be. When I was on my own, practising 12 hours a day, that’s what I was teaching myself to do – to be on the most difficult piano music routine. That’s a different kind of fulfillement – the personal execution and demonstration of what you can achieve as a pianist and as a person who has developped his skills.
My biggest achievement in terms of being on the world stage was being with Michael Jackson. Basically the whole thing has just been really wonderful and I have nothing to complain about – I am a blessed individual ! Because of what my experience was with Michael and due to the fact that I still play the piano and do the things that I like. So many people have asked me to play with them but I’m not even interested in that – I’m interested in continuing to play as a solo pianist and I have lots of students who fulfill my life. So I teach lessons and I go out and play sometimes. I don’t have to go anywhere – I just basically stay where I like to stay. That makes my life a very wonderful experience in every way.