The Michael Jackson songbook is filled with some of the most timeless compositions of the 20th century. The hits we all know – “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “Human Nature,” “Rock With You,” “Man in the Mirror,” and so on. MJ was just as beloved among musicians as he was to his billions of adoring fans, however, no matter how universally appealing his music was/is, his songs are damn near impossible to reinterpret on wax. Jackson’s songs were so tailored to his voice (he had 3 ½ octave range) and personality that many who’ve re-corded his songs end up with flat, sometimes campy, results. One of the ways musicians found ways around this was to cover songs that Jackson didn’t write, such as Miles Davis’ cover of “Human Nature,” and Stanley Jordan’s remake of “The Lady in My Life,” and several other examples. But there’s one specific song that continues to get redone: “I Can’t Help It.”
Recorded on the breakout masterpiece album Off The Wall in 1979, “I Can’t Help It,” was composed by Stevie Wonder, with lyrics written by former Supreme Susaye Greene. Wonder, a label mate, friend and mentor to Jackson, came up with a dreamy, blue-greenish groove, accentuated by a misty bass hook and ethereal Rhodes flourishes, with Michael specifically in mind. The track followed “She’s Out of My Life,” a top ten single in which Jackson infamously cried at the end of the song. The sequencing of these two tracks, spearheaded by producer Quincy Jones, was to such perfect affect, you felt as if MJ was wiping away those tears to recompose himself during his subdued vocal intro for this lovely mid-tempo love poem. Jackson caressed the track as only he could, incorporating both Wonder’s sublime vocal note bending and his own signature vibrato. Though never released as a single, “I Can’t Help It” became an instant classic among fans, DJs, and musicians. In fact, it may be the most covered song in all of MJ’s catalog. Be it the bass line, the chord progression, the sensuous lyrics or Jackson’s unforgettable interpretation, it seems to continue to resonate with artists, particularly instrumental artists, nearly 35 years later. In tribute to his 55th birthday, here’s a list of some of Revive’s favorite interpretations of “I Can’t Help It” (Yes, hearing the same song over and over can get repetitive, but it never seems to happen with this song; that’s how it is):
Grover Washington Jr. – Skylarking, 1980
The legendary saxophonist recorded his own version less than a year after it was released.
Gretchen Parlato – In My Dream, 2009
The Grammy-nominated singer opened her sophomore album with a stripped down, exotic take of the song that worked beautifully, thanks in part to unmistakable backing vocals and guitar licks from Lionel Loueke.
Robert Glasper Experiment, Live in concert, 2011
Glasper and co. made their alleigence to the Stevie Wonder songbook clear with their legendary tribute shows last winter, and this 2011 date predates that admiration.
Esperanza Spalding featuring Joe Lovano – Radio Music Society, 2012
While her ultra-complex, satisfyingly contemporary reworking of the song is a standout on her latest album, Spalding had, in fact, already made “I Can’t Help It” a fixture in her live show since 2009.
BWB – Human Nature, 2013
The three man jazz super group of Norman Brown (guitar), Kirk Whalum (saxophone) and Rick Braun (trumpet) return more than a decade after their debut to record their follow-up, a full-fledged Michael Jackson cover project. Naturally, “I Can’t Help It” was on this list, and made it their own, slowing it down to a smooth, sexy crawl.
Terrace Martin – 3 Chord Fold, 2013
Known for his production work for platinum-selling MC Kendrick Lamar, LA rapper/producer/musician Terrace Martin has a mult-genre palette, put fused jazz and hip-hop to the song on his album 3 Chord Fold. Here, he and his band give a in-studio tribute to the King of Pop, playing the song while on Rhodes and singer through a vocoder.
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)