When it comes to a Halloween playlist there are various tracks out there which fit the bill, from Monster Mash to Ghostbusters.
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But one of the best, if not the ultimate, is Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Its combination of high energy pop, a stunning video and of course Vincent Price’s rap makes it a must-listen for the witching hour.
Jackson performing in 1988. Photo by Gaston S/Kpo! 09 CC BY-SA 3.0
Back in 1982 Vincent Price and rap made strange bedfellows. In fact, the idea was more a spur of the moment decision than anything carefully crafted.
Yet with composer Rod Temperton’s talents, as well as Jackson’s determination to make the album the best it could be, magic was conjured in the recording studio.
Vincent Price in the trailer for the film Laura (1944)
The melody existed before the horror element was in place. Temperton’s original title for the track was Starlight.
According to Rolling Stone in 2009, Jackson’s interest in scary movies led Temperton to give the piece “a theatrical, dramatic arrangement. The song found a balance between a Broadway-style narrative and a thumping, irresistible dance-floor beat.”
Michael Jackson performing his song ‘Jam’ as part of his Dangerous world tour in Europe in 1992. Author Casta03 CC BY-SA 3.0
With things getting theatrical, a spoken word section seemed to be the way to go. For that Temperton needed an actor’s voice, and a classic star of horror was just a phone call away thanks to a mutual friend.
Actress Peggy Lipton (Twin Peaks) was married to superproducer Quincy Jones at the time, and she just so happened to know Vincent Price.
Quincy Jones in Venice, 1989. Photo by Gorup de Besanez CC BY-SA 3.0
As for what Price was going to say, well that was up in the air. Temperton had a fluid approach in mind, but after Jones expressed concern he wound up writing the rap on his way to the studio.
The aging star proved the consummate professional and performed the sequence in two takes, despite feeling a fish out of water.
Legacy.com describes Price as being “startled by the headphones when he arrived at the studio, never having used them before. When he reluctantly put them on, he jumped out of his chair in surprise upon hearing the funky music track he was to speak over.”
American singer Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009) performs the dance from ‘Thriller,’ c. 1984. Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Quoted by Rolling Stone, Jones said “Rod wrote this brilliant, Edgar Allan Poe spiel. And Vincent really understood it…” The infamous rap begins with the lines “Darkness falls across the land, The midnight hour is close at hand…”
Thriller was also the title track of Jackson’s album and the follow up to his mega-hit release Off The Wall.
Jackson performing in June 1988. Photo by Zoran Veselinovic CC-BY-SA
The creative dynamo’s trademark attention to detail was reflected in the music video for his horrific offering.
Directing it was Hollywood helmer John Landis (The Blues Brothers) and the 13 minute long result was far more than a promo. Jackson was called upon to act and transform into a werewolf in addition to strutting his stuff.
John Landis at the Blues Brothers 25th Anniversary DVD Launch in Hollywood, August 2005.
Landis had been picked based on his work for An American Werewolf in London (1981). Speaking to the Golden Age of Music Videos website in 2011, he reminisced about Price: “It was the one time I ever worked with him, and he was delightful. I mean, he just did it so quickly. And then we went to lunch… and I listened to stories.”
The hard work paid off. Thriller not only spent weeks in the number one spot but became the best-selling album in history.
Talking to Johnny Carson, Price revealed he was paid $20,000 for his time. While this wasn’t half bad for a couple of takes, the actor also had the option of a percentage of the album’s profits.
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Legacy.com writes “When Carson suggested that Price could have done a lot better if he had chosen album proceeds, he laughed amiably and said ‘How well I know!’ Considering that more than 110 million copies of the album have been sold to date, Carson was spot-on.”
Read another story from us: Christopher Lee – The Man Who Embodied Dracula
This month marks the 25th anniversary of Vincent Price’s death, making his contribution to Thriller especially powerful as it plays at various Halloween parties. It was the day the King of Pop met the King of Fear.