Janet Jackson is turning 50 today. It’s amazing to think her music career is 34 years old now. She was groomed by her family to be an actress-doing Mae West impressions on the Jackson 5’s Las Vegas shows in the mid 70’s and staring on Norman Lear’s Good Times as Penny,an abused child adopted the Evans’ next door neighbor Willona Woods on the show. Just before Mothers Day this year,Janet announced she was 2 weeks pregnant with her first child by her husband of five years Wissam Al Mana. Would like to wish these expectant parents all the happiness in the world for this happy event.
Growing up Janet was actually interested in becoming a horse racing jockey or an entertainment lawyer- supporting herself through acting. By her early teens,she’d become committed to being an entertainer. With the help of her father Joe,she got a contract with A&M Records in 1982. The album had an incredible array of session musicians,songwriters and producers working with an appropriate sound for Janet’s still developing vocals. The album itself did chart in the R&B Top 10. But somehow never produced any hit singles. One big potential one was the opener “Say You Do”.
Starting out with a hard hitting 5 beat pattern on the snare drum,a thunder like sound allows a thumping bass line and a cosmic space funk synthesizer to ascend in sound and pitch into the refrain. After this,a liquid rhythm guitar protects the groove with several accenting keyboard patterns. One is a horn type Clavinet accent,the other is an orchestral Fender Rhodes-themselves accompanied by aggressive Chic-like bursts of disco era strings along with Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements. These work tightly in concert with those Chic style strings arranged by Benjamin Wright.
After several choruses and refrains of Janet’s vocals-featuring the singer accompanying herself with several layers of lead and back-round choruses,there’s a thick and funky drum/Clavinet/synth bass funky bridge before a symphonic chorus of Janet’s vocals comes in. Janet’s voice is elaborately echoed in a rather psychedelic manner-again accompanying herself with her lower and higher range over the 5 beat drumming.After this, that drum breaks off into the thunder sound that started the song concluding it-with the synthesizer that fades up into the intro fading out in the exact opposite manner.
When I first heard this album 20 years ago,it came as a total surprise that so much elaborate musicality would go into an unproven teenager singer-even if she did carry the famous Jackson name. For awhile now,almost no thought goes into the majority of teen singer/boy band/girl group style musical productions. With the entire focus being on the singer’s vocal persona and the songs hook. This Rene & Angela composition that starts out Janet’s debut album takes a totally different approach-much like an early 80’s update of the sound Norman Whitfield got for The Temptation on songs like “Masterpiece”.
The incredible instrumentalists on this song might have a lot to do with this sound. Rufus’s rhythm section Bobby Watson,Tony Maiden,John Robinson AND Andre Fischer are all over this groove. Not to mention James Jamerson Jr. coming in on bass too along jazz oriented keyboardists/synthesizer players Jeff Lorber and Frank Zappa’s Ian Underwood. Janet’s teenage voice is very impressive on this song. Her maturing vocals not only scale from a low tenor to her high mezzo soprano by turns-along with the multi tracked and echo-plexed symphony of her voice added to the mix too.
Of course there’s also the influence of her brother Michael here too. Michael Jackson was one of the biggest personalities in the music world in 1982,and only about to get bigger on that level. Janet does her own versions of his vocal hiccups and range on this song for sure. But the idea of combining a tight rhythm section of strong session instrumentalists with the horn arrangements of Jerry Hey,also working with Quincy Jones and MJ at the time,showcased her influence from her brother was as much musical as it was from the performance standpoint of her presentation.
Musically this song also bridges two generations of funk as well. It has the elaborate arrangements of the cinematic soul sound of Isaac Hayes and Barry White that inaugurated the disco era. But the clipped,stripped down presentation of the rhythm section and spare bursts of strings and horns also fall in line with the new wave influenced Minneapolis sound of Prince. Which was one Janet would embrace more fully in the next several years. This sort of instrumental thoughtfulness and funkiness stands for me as a superb model for teen singers. And stands as a highly unsung debut song from Miss Janet!