The Invincible album just celebrated its twentieth anniversary and I could not imagine not mentioning it on my website on this occasion. So I wanted to tackle my favorite song on the record, which is “Don’t Walk Away”. I then reached out to Richard Stites to discuss it in an interview. As a composer, a producer and the second voice alongside Michael Jackson, he was therefore the ideal witness. I really love this song and want to thank Richard for granting my wish to pay tribute to this era on its anniversary.
First of all, can you tell us how you grew a passion for music and eventually made a career out of it?
I sang on stage in front of everyone when I was 12 years old from a tape recording. Although I was young, it was very natural for me to be on stage and from that moment I loved performing, music and the entertainment industry.
It eventually led me to have my own recording studio, production company and publishing company. My main instrument was the piano. I also played drums and programmed my own tracks. My career started when I was signed as an artist to MJJ Music/Sony Music when I was 25 years old. I was bought out of that deal and signed to Interscope Records by Jimmy Lovine from 1997 to 2000.
How were you spotted then hired by MJJ Music?
I was signed first as an singer on MJJ Music/Sony Music in 1995 when I was 25 years old. I went to Hayvenhurst, the Jacksons’s house in Encino, and recorded at the studio there and I met Jackie Jackson. He thought I was very talented. We recorded multiple songs. Jon Divens and Jackie Jackson got my music to Michael Jackson and he signed me to his record label. I thought he was an amazing artist and it was a great honor to know that he selected me as an artist in his record label and I always respected him prior to signing there.
Then much later I produced, wrote and sang a song called “Don’t Walk Away” on Michael Jackson’s last album Invincible. I recorded the song initially with me singing it for my album on Interscope. I later gave it to MJ. I still have the original recording of the song.
Is this composition somehow autobiographical?
It is completely autobiographical. I wrote the lyrics about a girl that I loved that broke my heart by walking away. I remember I didn’t want her to go but I just couldn’t find the right words to say to her. Finally, she changed her name, moved away and I never talked to her again. Her name was Grace Lee from Alaska.
I was intensely involved in the production of the entire song “Don’t Walk Away” as I sang the original version and it was intentionally meant to go on my album at Interscope Records.
How were you introduced to the Invincible album project?
After I left Interscope records in 2000, I lost everything. A good friend got me a storage unit that he paid for a year and I was able to put all my studio equipment there. I had no money and I was couch surfing and walking around trying to survive in Hollywood when I called my former manager Trudy Green and her assistant said: “Hey, Teddy Riley has been trying to reach you !” She gave me his number and said he had asked to call him as soon as possible. I used the last money I had to get a long distance calling card so I could call Teddy Riley from a pay phone and he said: “Look, can you get the master tapes and fly out here? I want to record Michael’s vocals with you on your song. I will pay you and get you out here. I will help you get to your storage for the master tapes too.” That’s how I was introduced to working on the Invincible album.
Teddy Riley first heard my song and said that Michael was going to absolutely love this tune. When he played it for him, he brought us to New York to record his vocals. We went first to Sony studios for a few days and because he was having that rift with Tommy Mottola, we left and went to the Hit Factory.
Can you tell us about the creative process of the song “Don’t Walk Away”?
Yes, I was involved in the entire conception, creation and production of the song “Don’t Walk Away”. I also recorded all of the initial vocals as it was supposed to be on my album on Interscope Records as I said. Michael and I bonded instantly. I remember I was in the back of the studio with all of my equipment setup. I was playing a new song I was working on that we ended up doing as well. I was bobbing my head to the track I was playing and wearing sunglasses and Michael mimicked me and started bobbing his head too and took sunglasses out of his top pocket and also put them on. I will remember that forever as it was hilarious !
Teddy Riley is credited as a composer and a producer too – what do you recall of his work?
In fact, Teddy was not involved in the production of the track whatsoever. I had a 27 piece live orchestra on there. I walked in with the final master tapes. He scheduled Michael to cut the vocals but took production credit and listed himself as the producer but that’s how it turns out on big albums like that. Yes, I produced the song but on the album it shows me in the booklet as the co-producer and Teddy Riley and Michael Jackson as the producers even though I only agreed to give them 10% of the production credit. The background vocals were already recorded before we cut Michael’s vocals. I walked into the studio with the master tapes of everything. The only things we added was Michael’s vocals with just some more effects and Teddy did an arrangement with an electric guitar for the intro. Regarding my vocal part you can hear at the end of the song, Michael wanted to keep it in. Actually, he wanted more but ended up only using the end vocals from my demo. The late great sound engineer Bruce Swedien mixed the song that night and that is what we hear.
(…Through our conversations on Messenger of which this interview is the fruit, Richard allowed me to listen to his demo of “Don’t Walk Away”. I had not dared to ask him but my interlocutor did it spontaneously. He seemed to really appreciate my interest in the genesis of this song and thus documents our exchanges. All the more so as all this confirms his statements: the essential was already there when he put his voice. The whole thing is a little more intimate in a more acoustic atmosphere, and the final version contains only a few arrangements. Michael could have taken this artistic direction that he had already tried with “Much Too Soon” although he didn’t include it in his final track list. However, he totally respected Richard’s vision in his interpretation. The pain and sorrow can already be fully felt in this demo and I personally felt privileged to hear what had made the King of Pop want to record the song. The ending sounds familiar, and for good reason: it is indeed Richard’s vocal take that was used and can be heard on the Invincible album. I have the pleasant sensation of listening to an archive document: it is actually in this field that I try to bring my modest contribution in the musical world of Michael Jackson trying to make me useful…)
Michael Jackson never discussed the track in the media. Do you remember how he felt about “Don’t Walk Away”?
Sure! MJ absolutely loved the song “Don’t Walk Away” and he thanked me over and over again for it. Michael told me it was one of his favorite songs on Invincible and was one of the first songs he recorded for that album.
Did you work on other demo tracks that never made it to the album?
I also recorded a song called “Just a Lover in My Life” that he planned to record but ended up never cutting vocals on. We never mixed it and finished it. Just vocals but Michael kept the reels with his vocals on there. If it wasn’t released in 5 years all rights revert back to me. So I own all rights to it.
(…This answer about “Just A Lover In My Life” had inevitably aroused my curiosity. Fortunately, in the same spirit as listening to the demo of “Don’t Walk Away”, Richard suggested I listen to it, as a pleasant surprise. A midtempo track with an interesting potential – that was enough to arouse Michael’s interest. From the first listen, we feel Jackson’s influence even through Richard’s vocal performance. In the dark and tormented atmosphere, I find some similarities with “She Was Loving Me” by Cory Rooney, another song not selected for Invincible. This atmosphere fits perfectly for the King of Pop and one can imagine him totally immersed in this demo as it was made for him. I imagine hearing his version and I let myself be carried away by these percussions that sound like a new disillusionment in love, but in a much more bitter way than “Don’t Walk Away”, in a theme close to that of “Who Is It”. All of this makes me want to be positive and tell myself that the vaults have not been looted yet. I still have Jackson treasures to discover, and this gift from Richard Stites is here to remind me. Naturally, I asked him for permission to talk about the demos. He kindly accepted, saying that he has kept it all to himself for too long. He even added that since the Invincible sessions, I am the first person to listen to this demo and he appreciates my interest. This is how I keep hope that, among the collaborators of the King of Pop, many more will be happy to share the beautiful experience they had with him…)
The Invincible album promotion was cut short due to a conflict between MJ and his record company. Do you think the song could have been a successful single with the shooting of a video?
Absolutely! Tommy Mottola wanted Michael’s Beatles catalog and wanted him to sell it to Sony Music. When MJ refused, Tommy Mottola proceeded to completely ruin the success of the album in America. It’s why it only sold 2 million in the US and 12 million in the rest of the world, and it’s also why MJ called Tommy Mottola the devil. If it was promoted and pushed in the US it would have been successful but Tommy Mottola saw that it wasn’t.
What has your musical career been since that era?
After working on Michael’s record I worked on George Clinton, Sleepy Brown, Tim Armstrong, The Transplants, Natalie Cole and Hollywood Undead’s albums.
Michael Jackson was definitely a major highlight but a brief snapshot of my journey through the music business. I had a Forrest Gump sort of journey where I always ended up in the middle of great things happening at that time. Working with Michael was a defining moment and a great memory that definitely changed me forever.