Love Never Felt So Good and Michael Jackson’s Work with Paul Anka

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The following is based on a chapter from my book, first released in 2015 as Xscape Origins and re-issued in an expanded edition in 2018 as Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault.

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It was 1980 and little Michael Jackson, the pint-sized child prodigy and former lead singer of legendary Motown group, The Jackson 5, wasn’t so little anymore. Rather, he was a twenty-one-year-old superstar whose illustrious career already spanned more than a decade.

Born August 29, 1958 in Gary, Indiana to parents Joseph and Katherine, Michael Jackson was destined for greatness. At the time Gary, a small midwestern American city 25 miles south-east of Chicago, was best known for its steel mills. 

In 1967, Joseph signed Michael, aged 9, and his four older brothers to the city’s local record label, aptly named Steeltown Records, as The Jackson Five, where they recorded and released a series of singles. The following year, the group booked a gig at the Regal Theater, performing as the opening act for the Motown group, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers. The Jackson Five’s performance that night caught Taylor’s eye, impressing him so much that he arranged for them to videotape an audition for Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy, at the label’s Detroit headquarters.

“Michael Jackson was ten years old when he and his brothers Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, and Marlon auditioned for me at Motown in Detroit that July day in 1968 and blew us all away,” recalls Gordy. “This little kid had an incredible knowingness about him. Michael had a quality that I couldn’t completely understand, but we all knew he was special.” 

Gordy ultimately signed Michael and his brothers to Motown as The Jackson 5, and the rest is history—literally. While other children his age were climbing trees and playing baseball at the park, 11-year-old Michael was working around the clock, recording what would become a record-breaking streak of hits that thrust he and his brothers into a global spotlight that would never fade.

The Jackson 5 burst onto the American music scene in December 1969, making their national television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. The group performed three songs, including their first single with Motown, “I Want You Back,” garnering overnight fame for the five Jackson brothers. 

Above: The Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show, December 14, 1969.

“I Want You Back” topped the U.S. charts on the back of the breakout performance, and their next three singles (“ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There”) each followed suit, making The Jackson 5 the first act in music history to have their first four singles reach #1. Not even Elvis Presley or The Beatles had achieved such a feat.

Michael also had solo success at Motown, cracking the top ten on the singles chart several times over, with his Academy Award-nominated song, “Ben,” reaching the top spot in 1972.

After recording an astonishing ten studio albums over five years at the label, featuring nine top-ten hit singles around the world, The Jackson 5 announced that they were leaving Motown to sign a brand new record deal with CBS’s Epic Records as The Jacksons. The deal afforded Michael and his brothers a higher royalty percentage and more artistic control, including the freedom to write their own material for the first time in their career.

In the short few years he spent as a young adult at Epic Records, Michael Jackson embarked on a series of high-profile projects that most other artists would have happily retired on. He recorded and released five more studio albums: four with The Jacksons (the self-titled The Jacksons in 1976, Goin’ Places in 1977, Destiny in 1978, and Triumph in 1980) and one solo record produced by Quincy Jones (Off The Wall in 1979). 

He starred in the American variety television show, The Jacksons, which aired on CBS from 1976 to 1977, and played the ‘Scarecrow’ role in the Motown-produced musical film, The Wiz, in 1978. He also completed two grueling tours (the Destiny world tour from early-1979 to early-1980, and the Triumph tour in 1981) where he and his brothers performed a total of 169 concerts across Europe, Africa, and North America for hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. 

By the time he turned twenty-one, Jackson had all but guaranteed the two Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions that would later be bestowed upon him. And to think, all this before the world had heard but a single note from Thriller, Jackson’s 1982 masterpiece that would ultimately become the biggest-selling album in music history.

Despite his considerable output during his late teens and early twenties, a plethora of additional material Jackson worked remained unreleased and often incomplete, including solo work, music made with his brothers, and collaborative efforts with the likes of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. 

One of the unfinished tracks Jackson worked on during that period was a breezy love song the young pop star co-wrote with Canadian singer/songwriter Paul Anka. The song, called “Love Never Felt So Good,” was never fully completed by Jackson beyond the original demo he recorded with Anka way back in 1980. The demo features Anka on piano and a youthful, vibrant Jackson on vocals. No band. No world-class production. Just two talented artists vibing in Anka’s home studio.

Above: Jackson and Anka’s original demo of Love Never Felt So Good.

Jackson’s relationship with Anka – whose songwriting successes include the Tom Jones hit “She’s a Lady” and Frank Sinatra’s signature track “My Way” – goes back as far as the early 1970s.

According to Anka, Jackson’s parents used to take the whole family out to Las Vegas to experience the array of diverse entertainment on offer – including Anka’s show at Caesar’s Palace. It was during these Vegas trips that Anka first met the Jacksons, including Michael, and developed a tight bond with them.

“I first met Michael Jackson when he was a very young boy,” recalls Anka. “I knew he was immensely talented – this was before Thriller and his huge hits – and I began to think about collaborating with him.” 

“His family would come up to Caesar’s Palace when I was working there, and they would attend my shows and come backstage, and we’d sit down and talk and I realized at that point that my dear friend was very much into show business. He was a sponge and he would always ask very intelligent questions.” recalls Anka. “They were a theatrically driven family. You could see that.”

Jackson’s artistic philosophy of ‘study the greats and become greater’ has been well documented over the years. From tales of him pestering Etta James backstage, to constantly picking Bobby Taylor’s brain, to watching Jackie Wilson and James Brown perform both on television and live from the wings of theaters in the late 1960s, Jackson’s dedication to perfecting his own craft was something to behold.

“I carefully watched all the stars because I wanted to learn as much as I could,” explains Jackson in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. “I’d stare at their feet, the way they held their arms, the way they gripped a microphone, trying to decipher what they were doing and why they were doing it. After studying James Brown from the wings, I knew every step, every grunt, every spin and turn. I have to say he would give a performance that would exhaust you, just wear you out emotionally. His whole physical presence, the fire coming out of his pores, would be phenomenal. You’d feel every bead of sweat on his face and you’d know what he was going through. I’ve never seen anybody perform like him. Unbelievable, really. When I watched somebody I liked, I’d be there. James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O’Jays – they all used to really work an audience. I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than from anyone or anything else. All of this was a very important part of my education.”

“Most of the time I’d be alone backstage,” continues Jackson. “My brothers would be upstairs eating and talking and I’d be down in the wings, crouching real low, holding on to the dusty, smelly curtain and watching the show. I mean, I really did watch every step, every move, every twist, every turn, every grind, every emotion, every light move. That was my education and my recreation. I was always there when I had free time. My father, my brothers, other musicians, they all knew where to find me. They would tease me about it, but I was so absorbed in what I was seeing, or in remembering what I had just seen, that I didn’t care.”

“I remember all those theaters: the Regal, the Uptown, the Apollo – too many to name. The talent that came out of those places is of mythical proportions. The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work. You couldn’t teach a person what I’ve learned just standing and watching.”

When on tour with his brothers in the late 70s and early 80s, the group travelled by bus. In that bus was a television set and a videotape player, which Jackson’s then manager, Ron Weisner, recalls Jackson would watch religiously before and after his own concert performances. 

“He played homemade tapes featuring performances from [Fred] Astaire, [Charlie] Chaplin, [James] Brown, and [Jackie] Wilson. Michael stared at the tiny TV, enraptured by these entertainers, sometimes inspired to the point that he’d mimic their dance steps in the aisle of the bus.”

Jackson was so inspired during this period that on November 6, 1979, while in Maryland to perform with his brothers for more than 10,000 screaming fans at the Baltimore Civic Centre as part of the Destiny world tour, he penned a handwritten manifesto outlining the steps he intended to take to further perfect his craft as an all-round entertainer. 

“I will be magic,” writes Jackson in the manifesto. “I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, and a master. I must have the most incredible training system. To dig, and dig, and dig until I find. I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it. Take it steps further than where the greatest left off.”

“Michael wouldn’t stop studying, his thinking being that he needed all of this history in his blood so he could work his audiences into a frenzy,” adds Weisner. “His energy level back then was off the charts, unmatched by anyone I’ve seen before or since. I used to tell friends that Michael was an alien, that he wasn’t one of us. His focus, his attention span and his work ethic were far, far beyond that of an earthbound human being. He wanted to be the best, then go beyond that. It was always about making history, about moving the most units, about selling the most tickets, about making the most imaginative videos, about getting the most glowing reviews, and he was well aware that the only way to make that happen was to out-work, out-study, and out-think anyone he perceived as a competitor.”

Jackson’s appetite for greatness was insatiable, and his transformation from child star to adult superstar came as no surprise to those who knew him, including Paul Anka, who had identified his extraordinary talent way back in those early Vegas meetings at Caesar’s Palace.

By the time the pair reconnected through a mutual friend of theirs, David Gest, in 1980, Jackson had released several of his own hit singles, and had even won a Grammy for his vocal performance on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from his iconic 1979 album Off The Wall.

But despite his early success, Jackson’s career was in many ways only beginning.

Above: Jackson, Gest and Anka.

Michael was just starting out when we wrote together – this was before Thriller,” recalls Anka. “He was twenty-one. He was very professional, knew what he wanted, and he was just like a sponge. He loved the business and he wanted to be number one. And he was a very, very talented guy to work with. I’ve worked with a lot of them, but he had something very, very special. This was a very unique talent.”

Anka invited Jackson to visit him at his Carmel-by-the-Sea home in Monterey County, California. According to Anka, Jackson ended up staying for two weeks during which time the pair collaborated on a number of ideas including “Love Never Felt So Good”.

“For the two weeks we just threw ideas around and titles and concepts,” recalls Anka. “We spent a lot of time in my studio, and a lot of material came out – songs half-finished, full-finished – and the process was very, very exciting for me… I was very impressed with the way he went about the writing process. He knew how to make his way around a song, not only because he had an incredible vocal quality, but he also had a capacity to make complicated singing licks from an initial one-finger tune played for him on the piano.”

After wrapping the two-week collaborative sessions at Anka’s home studio in Carmel, Jackson turned his focus back to working with his brothers, who were still actively recording and performing as The Jacksons at the time.

In late 1980, The Jacksons released Triumph, their fourth album since moving from Motown to CBS. The group would go on to promote Triumph with a 1981 tour, dazzling audiences with live renditions of  “Can You Feel It,” “Lovely One,” and “This Place Hotel” from the album, as well as tracks from Michael’s most recent solo album, Off The Wall, including chart-topping hits “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”.

When the tour concluded in late September, 1981, Michael began working on what would become his next solo album, Thriller, ultimately released by CBS a year later on November 30, 1982. It was sometime during this period that the star was allegedly involved in an incident that struck a sour note with Anka.

At the time, Anka had begun working on a new album, to be released by the same label that Michael and The Jacksons were signed to, CBS, now known as Sony.

“The concept of the album I was working on for Sony, Walk a Fine Line, was collaborations with other artists: Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, David Foster, and Chicago,” recalls Anka, who also wanted to include two of the tracks he had recorded with Jackson at his home studio a couple of years prior.

“Michael was just starting out when we wrote together” recalls Anka. “But the thing is, while we were doing Walk a Fine Line, Michael was also doing tracks for his album Thriller. Well, Thriller comes out and is an absolute smash, and of course I can’t get Michael in the studio to finish what we are doing.”

According to Anka’s recollection of events, Jackson had arranged for the tapes of the collaborative sessions the two had carried out at Anka’s home studio, including “Love Never Felt So Good,” to be delivered to him. “I had tapes sitting in the studio… all the tapes from when we were working together… And I don’t know if it was Michael or those around him, but they did take the tapes from the studio. So I was very upset about it and I went to his lawyers, who were also my lawyers, and I said, ‘Why? I need to finish this project.’ It almost got into a legal issue, but they returned the tapes.”

Much to Anka’s frustration, Jackson never returned to finish the work they had begun back in 1980, and the Walk a Fine Line album was released in August 1983 without Jackson’s participation. The songs the pair worked on, including “Love Never Felt So Good,” remained incomplete – in the form of rough demos, featuring classic Jackson claps, finger snaps and oral percussive embellishments accompanied by Anka on piano.

Although Jackson never returned to complete the songs in the studio with Anka, the pair did have a reunion of sorts years after their collaboration, at a Los Angeles law firm. By this point, Jackson’s recently-released Thriller album had gone gangbusters, selling a million copies per week and boasting a string of hit singles featuring collaborations with the likes of Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen.

Above: Jackson and Anka.

“I was in a lawyer’s office,” recalls Anka, “and one of the attorneys came in and said, ‘Michael Jackson is next door and he wants to meet [with] you.’ And I was still smarting, but I said, ‘You know what, bygones.’ I went next door and he said, ‘Paul, I hope you’re not still mad?’ I said, ‘Michael, don’t worry about it.’”

On July 19, 1983, despite the fact that it would not be used on Anka’s Walk a Fine Line album, a copyright registration for “Love Never Felt So Good” was filed at the United States Copyright Office. Authorship on the application is shared equally between Jackson and Anka for ‘words and music.’ The date of the song’s creation is cited as 1980 and their respective companies, Mijac Music and Squwanko Music, Inc., are the listed claimants. 

Source: U.S. Copyright Office’s Library of Congress database.

Then, six months after the original version of “Love Never Felt So Good” was copyrighted, American artist Johnny Mathis released a rendition of the track. The Mathis version, included on his A Special Part of Me album in January 1984, features Jackson alumni David Williams on guitar and a horn arrangement by Jerry Hey. The track also includes refined lyrics thanks to songwriter Kathy Wakefield, who helped tighten them up prior to Mathis recording it. Jackson did not participate in the re-working of the lyrics.

Wakefield, who received a songwriting credit on the Mathis version, had previously worked with Michael during his days at Motown as part of The Jackson 5. Throughout her career she also worked with his brother Jermaine on several occasions, and co-wrote “Torture” from The Jacksons’ 1984 album Victory with their brother Jackie. 

“Michael was a thrill to watch and listen to, even when he wasn’t tall enough to reach the microphone,” recalled Wakefield when I interviewed her for my book. “And later, working with all the Jacksons; they were all the best. Jackie and I worked together, as did I and Jermaine, I and Michael, and later, I and Marlon.”

“Michael’s work and presence was unavoidable at all times,” continued Wakefield, “whether he was in the same room or just the same city. He was always so sweet, polite, and soft-spoken to the point where you had to lean in to hear what he was saying – the opposite of Michael onstage, Michael recording, or Michael the incredible superstar. He was breathtaking to work with, and it was exciting to watch him become the legend he ultimately became.”

More than two decades later, in late 2006, a low-quality digital copy of Jackson and Anka’s original “Love Never Felt So Good” demo leaked on the Internet. Then, shortly after the King of Pop’s 2009 death, a copy of that original tape was discovered by the Jackson Estate. 

“What happened was Michael obviously copied those original tapes, put them away, and all these years later that copy he had in his drawer of my tape is the one they used,” deduces Anka of the Jackson Estate’s access to his original recordings. 

Following its discovery, “Love Never Felt So Good” was given to Dutch composer Giorgio Tuinfort to be remixed in consideration for release on an upcoming project. Tuinfort’s remix of “Love Never Felt So Good,” which was co-produced by Jackson Estate co-executor John McClain, was considered for, but not included on Michael – the controversial posthumous album released by Sony and the Estate in December 2010.

Although not selected for the Michael album, “Love Never Felt So Good” would ultimately make its debut in May 2014, when the remix that Tuinfort and McClain had completed almost four years earlier was officially released as the lead single for Xscape – Sony and the Estate’s second posthumous Jackson album.

Above: Love Never Felt So Good video released by Sony and the Jackson Estate in 2014.

Upon its release, “Love Never Felt So Good” shot to the top of the charts all around the world. The song quickly became Michael Jackson’s biggest hit in more than a decade – since the Invincible album’s lead single “You Rock My World” reached the top 10 in more than twenty countries in 2001.

To accompany Tuinfort and McClain’s production of the track on the album, “Love Never Felt So Good” was remixed for a second time, by producer Timbaland, featuring a guest vocal performance by pop star Justin Timberlake in a virtual posthumous duet with Jackson.

Above: Video for the Justin Timberlake duet version of Love Never Felt So Good.

Additionally, the unadulterated original demo of the track recorded by Jackson with Paul Anka 34 years earlier was also included on Xscape.

When it reached its peak at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on May 21, 2014, “Love Never Felt So Good” made Jackson the first and only artist in American chart history to have top ten hits in five different decades – six decades if you include his work with The Jackson 5.

The success of “Love Never Felt So Good” came as no surprise to many, including Kathy Wakefield, who remembers the feeling that she – and everyone involved with the original collaborative sessions – had about the material they were working on at the time. 

“It was such a creative time for a lot of people,” recalls Wakefield, “with lots of projects and amazing collaborations going on, which, I believe, is why the music sounds so good, even today. There was always a wonderful sense that we were making great music.”

Among the other tracks Jackson and Anka worked on way back in 1980 are “I Never Heard” and “It Don’t Matter To Me”.

A rendition of “I Never Heard” was first released in 1991 by Puerto Rican singer Sa-Fire on her I Wasn’t Born Yesterday album. Then, following Jackson’s death, his original version with Anka was posthumously released under the title “This Is It” on the Michael Jackson’s This Is It soundtrack in 2009. The posthumously-released “This Is It” version featured a new production by Jackson Estate co-executor John McClain and background vocals by Jackson’s brothers.

Above: John McClain’s new production of Jackson and Anka’s I Never Heard demo, released under the title This Is It in 2009.
Source: U.S. Copyright Office’s Library of Congress database.

“It Don’t Matter To Me” remained completely unheard until 2018, when the track was licensed by Anka and the Jackson Estate to Canadian artist, Drake, who sampled it in the hit song “Don’t Matter To Me” from his Scorpion album in 2018.

Above: Drake’s 2018 track Don’t Matter To Me featuring a sample from Jackson and Anka’s original demo.
Source: U.S. Copyright Office’s Library of Congress database.

The full and unadulterated original versions of “I Never Heard” and “It Don’t Matter To Me” remain unreleased.

According to Anka, of the several songs he and Jackson worked on together during their two-week collaborative stint, “Love Never Felt So Good” is the one he was most excited about:

“The chord changes. The concept of the song. The range. The way he approached the song. It was the way he heard everything and he would vocalize it to me. All the little sounds, the harmonies, and the way we bounced off each other with lyrics and what we wanted to say.”

Anka remembers Jackson bringing more to the table as far as the sonic direction of the tracks than most other artists he has collaborated with:

“Michael brought a lot more to the basic track when he did all of the things that he did, and that great feeling of passion and warmth and believability that he did in his songs… I’ve been here many times, from Tom Jones to Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley and on and on with songs, but [‘Love Never Felt So Good’] has a very, very special place on my mantlepiece because of the history and because of Michael.”

Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examines the King of Pop’s creative process on a collection of previously-unreleased songs which were ultimately released years after his death. The book is available in physical and digital formats via Amazon and iBooks.

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