The history of “Hold My Hand” is an interesting one. Michael Jackson did not write the song, and the song was not written for Michael Jackson. Yet, “Hold My Hand” was officially released as a “Michael Jackson” track on November 15, 2010 – the lead single of Sony Music and the Michael Jackson Estate’s controversial “Michael” album.
To discover the origins of the song we must travel back in time five years.
In 2007, R&B star Akon was among the hottest acts on the planet, making no less than ten (10) appearances on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 chart that year alone.
Akon’s consistency earned him the opportunity to work with some of the industry’s most significant names of the time. Hugely successful collaborations were flowing like water for Akon, with the star featuring on hits with artists including Gwen Stefani, Dr. Dre, T-Pain, 50 Cent, Snoop Dog and Eminem – to name just a few.
Everything Akon touched seemed to turn to gold.
During this time, two of the biggest artists in music history were working on their respective “comeback” albums. One was the King of Pop; Michael Jackson. The other; Whitney Houston.
Houston reached out to Akon, inviting him to lend his talents to her forthcoming project. Of course, Akon accepted the invitation and got to work.
In early-2007, Akon was working on ideas for Houston with up-and-coming songwriter Claude Kelly. At the time Kelly was relatively unknown in the music industry.
“I’ve been known in the industry for writing song since about 2006, 2007″, Kelly explained in a 2012 interview with Forbes.
Kelly worked on a number of tracks, three of which (“Like I Never Left”, “For The Lovers” and “I Got You”) were ultimately recorded and released by Houston on her “I Look To You” album.
One track that was written for Houston, but was not recorded or released, is “Hold My Hand”.
“What people don’t know is that [Hold My Hand] is actually one of the first songs I wrote back then, although it didn’t come out until 2010,” Kelly reveals.
In fact, “Hold My Hand” never actually made it to Houston for her consideration. Akon decided he liked the song so much that he recorded it for his own upcoming album – initially called “Acquitted” but ultimately released as “Freedom”.
“He heard it and snatched it before he could even give it to Whitney because he wanted it for himself,” recalls Kelly.
Soon after working on an early solo version of “Hold My Hand” (see above), Akon received the call of a lifetime. One of his heroes, the King of Pop, wanted to work with him.
“I’m excited, I’m highly excited because I think it’s gonna be magic when we get together,” Akon told Rolling Stone of the potential Jackson collaboration. “With his voice, and with our melodies, with the way and how we can bring it across I think it would be incredible.”
Akon and Jackson were connected through a mutual contact – music attorney Peter Lopez.
“[Peter] called me with Michael in a three-way call, and at first I thought it was a crank call. Peter said ‘No, I’m really serious, it’s Michael Jackson’,” Akon recalls.
“The thought of [meeting Jackson] was nerve-wracking, but when I finally got a chance to actually meet him and I found out how normal and cool and humble he was, all that went out the window.”
“He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room as him, I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved. That aura… That’s how incredible that aura is. We about to shake the world up, man.”
During ensuing telephone discussions with Jackson about the type of music they’d like to make Akon teased that he had a song in mind that he wanted to show Jackson.
“He asked me to send the track to him,” remembers Akon, to which he responded that Jackson would have to wait until they were in the studio together before hearing it.
When he finally heard the track, which Akon had recorded in full and produced as a demo, Jackson insisted he put his vocals on it.
“Michael Jackson fell in love with it and recorded it,” recounts Kelly.
Akon turned to studio engineer Mark “Exit” Goodchild to record Jackson’s vocals for the track.
Goodchild had previously recorded Akon’s vocals for Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something 2008″ which appeared on ‘THRILLER 25′. However, this was his first time recording Michael Jackson, who recorded his part for the “Wanna Be Startin’ Something 2008″ in Eddie Cascio’s now infamous basement.
Jackson’s vocals for “Hold My Hand” were recorded at Studio X in late-2007.
Studio X is located at The Palms resort & hotel in Las Vegas, where Jackson would often reside. Goodchild ranks recording Jackson’s vocals there as the most moving experience of his engineering career to date.
“He was in the booth and he was singing his butt off,” recalls Goodchild.
“And after every take he was like, ‘Sorry, sorry.’ And I looked back and I’m like: ‘What is he saying sorry for?’ I look at Akon, and RedOne is in the room, and we are like: ‘It sounds amazing!’ And we already had goose bumps. And it wasn’t just because it was Michael Jackson, it was because he was singing his butt off!”
RedOne also remembers watching Jackson record the track.
“Me and Akon were watching him work in the studio, laughing like little children,” said the producer of Jackson apologizing for what they considered an amazing vocal performance. “Michael is such a perfectionist in everything he does. Every detail is perfect. It’s all ear candy.”
Goodchild agreed, adding: “He was so well-practiced, and so good at singing that even when he thought he wasn’t doing so well, his chops and delivery were way better than anybody we’ve ever dealt with.
Akon first made mention of “Hold My Hand” in a brief interview with MTV in March 2008, telling reporter Jeff Cornell: “It’s a worldwide record… The record is so huge. It’s too big. Michael is the only person I could have collaborated with,” sending Jackson’s fans into a frenzy.
Jackson was well-known for keeping his unreleased music projects under lock and key, sharing files with a very select group of trusted friends and family.
One of those privileged enough to hear the track was the King of Pop’s nephew, Taj Jackson.
“Hold My Hand” was the last song my uncle Michael every played to me in person”, Taj reminisced.
“He was so proud of it. I’ll never forget that smile he had on his face as the song played through the speakers (in his room) at the Palms Hotel in Vegas. After the song was over, he asked me what I honestly thought of it. I told him it was a worldwide number one song and that it was going to be huge. He was so happy to hear that.”
Unfortunately for Jackson, and Akon for that matter, the song leaked online in an incomplete state in June 2008.
This was the first time in many years (with the exception of snippets of “Blue Gangsta” leaking in a remix by Tempamental two years earlier) that Jackson fans had experienced a brand new track featuring their idol’s vocals.
The song spread like wildfire with illegal download links appearing on practically every celebrity gossip website and music blog around the globe.
Akon gave a detailed account of the events surrounding the leak during an appearance on Tavis Smiley’s television show on PBS in January 2009.
“Well, what happened was me and Mike did this incredible record called “Hold My Hand” and, I mean, the record is amazing. Phenomenal,” explained Akon.
“And the concept was that this would be Mike’s first release off of his new album, and then I would stripe it on my album; on my following release. That way we could have the outlets open for everyone to be able to receive the record. You know, Mike came up with this brilliant marketing launch for the record. You know, he’s the best at launching a record,” Akon continued.
“He’d have the whole world paying attention in two minutes… And before we could get to that point, the record got leaked over the internet. And we got over 15 million downloads on the song for free. So it’s like, we couldn’t [release it]. I mean, you can’t at that point. Everybody already has the record. But in a way, you gotta look at it like, that’s just a gift to the fans.”
After the leak of “Hold My Hand” Jackson became more protective over his music than ever before. Akon recalls that Jackson sometimes preferred to collaborate in his hotel room at The Palms rather than the studio, where he feared others could potentially access his unfinished work.
Tragically, on June 25, 2009 Michael Jackson passed away, leaving behind a plethora of incomplete tracks recorded by a range of producers spanning decades, including “Hold My Hand”.
What Jackson also left behind was hand-written notes including lyrics, song titles, and even instructions outlining how certain demo recordings should be amended for completion.
One note that was recovered from the house that Jackson died in consisted of 28 hand-written song titles.
These titles are songs that Jackson had on his radar at the time of his death – songs that Jackson intended to complete, and was considering for his upcoming album.
One section of the note reads: “Finish –> Scared of the Moon, Beautiful Girl, Cheater” – all songs we’ve heard before, in varying forms of incompletion. The list also includes songs that appear on the controversial ‘MICHAEL’ album, including “Hollywood Tonight”, “Best of Joy”, and “Hold My Hand”.
Additional lyric sheets exist (and have been leaked online) for both “Best of Joy” and “Hollywood Tonight”, including a detailed back-story, additional verse lyrics and even composition instructions for the latter.
As for “Hold My Hand,” Jackson’s Estate claim to have obtained a handwritten note where Jackson explains his desire to make the track the lead single for his next album. The notion of this note was used to support the Estate’s decision to release “Hold My Hand” featuring Akon as the lead single for 2010’s “Michael” album.
Their claim would be supported by Akon’s early-2009 statement that “the concept was that this would be Mike’s first release off of his new album” had he not gone on to state that “we got over 15 million downloads on the song for free. So it’s like, we couldn’t [release it]. I mean, you can’t at that point. Everybody already has the record.”
Perhaps Jackson had indeed written this supposed-note before “Hold My Hand” leaked in 2008? Because if Jackson’s habits (and Akon’s above comments) are anything to go by, it’s safe to assume these would no longer have been his true wishes come 2010.
Jackson is notorious for opting against the release of leaked material as singles, as evident following the 2002 leak of the set-to-be-released Rodney Jerkins collaboration “Xscape”. (The track has since been released on the posthumous album of the same name.)
Despite the Estate’s claim of the note’s existence, no such note stating anything of the kind has been presented to the public.
Taj Jackson, who had heard the track before it leaked in 2008, offered Jackson the following piece of constructive criticism: “I told my uncle that he needed to be singing more in the chorus and at the end of the song… I said that we (the fans) would want to hear his voice more.”
I personally asked Akon in early-November if more of Jackson’s voice would be heard on the soon-to-be-released version, and he confirmed that there would indeed be new, unheard Jackson vocals on the track.
Akon went on to explain in an official press release that: “The world was not ready to hear “Hold My Hand” when it leaked a couple years ago. We were devastated about it. But its time has definitely come; now in its final state, it has become an incredible, beautiful, anthemic song. I’m so proud to have had the chance to work with Michael, one of my all time idols.”
True to Akon’s word, the newly completed version of “Hold My Hand” included a host of unheard Jackson vocals taken from the original recording session.
“He was a perfectionist. He would never settle with one take, or with one ad lib or with one idea,” said Akon of Jackson’s recording habits. “He would do thousands of those ideas and then we had to shuffle through them and find the best one. And if we didn’t find it, he would go and do another thousand.”
Following it’s November 15 release in 2010 “Hold My Hand” charted well, soaring to the Top 10 in no less than fifteen countries. It also became Jackson’s 48th hit in the U.S., peaking at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Upon reflection, the track’s chief songwriter, Claude Kelly, who has since written mega-hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Jessie J and Bruno Mars, was simply content with the fact that his favourite artist, the King of Pop, had honoured him with the ultimate complement – recording his work.
“He is my all time favourite artist, so it’s kind of sweeter for me than any of the other songs I’ve done. Despite [the fact] it didn’t go number one. It didn’t match ‘Thriller’ or anything else he’s done, but I guess for me I can say I was one of the last people to have a song recorded by Michael Jackson. That’s good enough.”
Above: A music video for the song was released on December 9, 2010. The video, commissioned by Sony Music and the Michael Jackson Estate, was directed by Mark Pellington.