Siedah Garrett unplugged

I vividly recall the day Michael Jackson’s long-awaited ‘Bad’ album came out: the bus ride to ‘Our Price’ in Bromley; coming home proudly brandishing my cassette tape (whatever happened to those?) I was an unabashed Michael Jackson fan and do not know what to make of the recent allegations against him: I do know that I will always love his music, though.

If you remember ‘Bad’ then you will remember that, unexpectedly, the first single to be released was a duet between Jackson and the then little-known Siedah Garrett: ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’. It wasn’t my favourite song from the album, and I can’t remember who he sang it with at Wembley (yes, I saw him perform on the ‘Bad’ tour, with my Langley Park School for Girls partner-in-crime Juliet Smith), but that album coming out remains a moment in my life I will always treasure.

Thirty (gulp) years later, watching Siedah Garrett perform said duet at Pizza Express Live was a somewhat surreal experience. She’s been on quite a journey since the ‘Bad’ days, garnering a Grammy and two Oscar nominations along the way – but I digress. Let’s hasten back to the beginning of this evening, and Garrett’s triumphant entrance.

Tall and elegant, wearing the most towering stilettoes I’ve ever seen, Siedah teetered on to the stage and launched straight into “A record I made with the fabulous Common. He does a fabulous rap on it: check this out”. And we were off, ‘G.H.E.T.T.O’ taking over the room, and the audience.

How come I’d forgotten Siedah Garrett’s links with Brand New Heavies? She told us tonight that it was the producer Dennis Lambert who informed the Heavies that she would make a good writing partner. For two years, she travelled back and forth between her home in America and London, demo-ing her songs: “…and in the end, they couldn’t find a singer better than me to sing them!”

For a time, Garrett lived on Manchester Square, home to the Wallace Collection, where she wrote the Heavies’ ‘Shelter’ album. Who could forget the brilliance of ‘Sometimes’? –  it’s a timeless classic, and tonight’s rendition was a joy to listen to.

Her voice is eerily good, and you wonder why Garrett has become better known as a writer/producer than a singer. She remains a huge fan of Dennis Lambert, who”…was a joy to me. He happened to be at the Quincy Jones audition where Quincy discovered me”. There followed a blissful rendition of ‘Don’t look any further’.

Bet that one jogged your memory, didn’t it? Needless to say, however, it’s for her duet with Michael Jackson that Siedah Garrett will remain best remembered – a fact of which she is well aware, building up to it with a series of confidences. “This next song introduced me to the world as a duet partner to the king of pop, Michael Jackson. Man…as you can imagine, it changed my life”. Pausing for a moment, Garrett continued: “We’d recorded some vocals on ‘Man in the Moon’ and when Quincy Jones called me back into the studio, I thought we were finishing that song. When Michael Jackson came in, I was knitting!”

Smiling at us, Garret continued: “Quincy played me this new track, and asked me if I liked it – which I did. So they asked me to sing the vocals – and Michael followed me into the recording booth with a giant video camera. He told me he wanted to sing the song like me! Can you imagine, though, if I’d told Quincy Jones that I didn’t like the song?”

At that moment, to the audience’s delight, Denise Pearson from Eighties supergroup Five Star joined Garrett on stage, sweetly confiding “I’m nervous”. What a moment: completely unexpected, and wonderful – and their voices harmonised nicely as they duetted on ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’.

Difficult to follow that, isn’t it? But Garrett managed it, performing ‘You are the Universe’, also from the ‘Shelter’ album: “It’s the first time I’ve sung this in England!”

And then, a change in mood. “During my demo days, I sung this for the great Burt Bacharach. He made me do things I wouldn’t normally do…riffs, and all sorts. This became a number one song…and then The Queen of Soul decided to record it! She said it was because she loved the way I sang it: This is ‘In these ever-changing times’.”

What an endorsement. The next track Garrett performed was from Quincy Jones’s ‘Back on the Block’ album. “It used to be an instrumental, so I created a lyric for ‘Tomorrow (Better You Better Me)’.”

Reminding us that she’s held in high esteem for her song-writing abilities, Garrett continued: “This song garnered me the first of my two Oscar nominations. It became a number one song for Jennifer Hudson – and I won a Grammy. This is ‘Love You I Do’”.

We were heading towards the end of the evening now, with Garrett reflecting “I recorded this song a few years ago. It came about while I was walking my dog and saw a bumper sticker proclaiming ‘War is not the answer’. That made me wonder what the question was…and then I decided that it didn’t matter”.

Reflecting on what she’d just said, Garrett pronounced: “The Answer’s Always Love – and I hope you enjoy this beautiful ballad.”

Rounding off a wonderfully entertaining evening, Siedah Garrett and the fabulously talented Brazilian guitarist Lari Basilio performed Basilio’s new single from her album ‘Far More’, requesting that we “Please embrace this version of ‘Man in the Mirror’”.

We certainly did – just as we’d embraced the entire evening and the three wonderful musicians we’d watched perform. What a night. Pizza Express Live continues to deliver brilliant experience after brilliant experience – and my 16-year-old self went home very contented indeed.

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