The History of ‘Hold My Hand’ – Michael Jackson’s Duet with Akon

Share Button

In order to trace the origins of Michael Jackson’s “Hold My Hand” we need to go back to 2007 – a time when Senegalese-American RnB star Akon was among the most popular artists on the planet.

Akon’s success over the preceding years had afforded him the opportunity to work with some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Gwen Stefani, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

On the back of that success, in early 2007, Akon received a call from Whitney Houston, inviting him to work on her next album.

This would be Akon’s biggest collaboration yet.

Without hesitation, Akon accepted the invitation and immediately got to work.

At the time, Akon was working with a songwriter named Claude Kelly. And it was Kelly who helped Akon craft songs for Houston’s consideration.

Kelly was relatively unknown in his career as a songwriter back in 2007, so the opportunity to write for Houston was huge.

The songwriter worked on a number of tracks specifically for Houston, three of which – “Like I Never Left,” “For The Lovers” and “I Got You” – were recorded and ultimately released by Houston on her I Look To You album.

Another track that Kelly wrote for Houston, but which the pop star did not record, was “Hold My Hand”.

“What people don’t know is that [Hold My Hand] is actually one of the first songs I wrote back then,” Kelly reveals.

In fact, “Hold My Hand” never actually made it to Houston for her consideration.

Kelly recalls that when Akon first heard “Hold My Hand,” he liked the track so much that he recorded it for his own project:

“He heard it and snatched it before he could even give it to Whitney because he wanted it for himself.”

ABOVE: Akon’s original solo demo of “Hold My Hand”

Soon after recording his own demo of “Hold My Hand,” Akon received the call of a lifetime.

One of his musical 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.

“He called me with Michael in a three-way call, and at first I thought it was a crank call,” recalls Akon.

“Peter said: No, I’m really serious. It’s Michael Jackson!

Akon reveals that the mere thought of meeting Jackson made him nervous:

“The thought 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.”

Akon adds:

“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.”

In November 2007, Jackson and Akon finally worked together – but not on new music. Well, not entirely new music.

Their first real collaboration was on a bonus track set to be included in a 25th anniversary edition of Jackson’s best-selling album Thriller.

Akon re-arranged, re-wrote and re-recorded the pop star’s classic song “Wanna Be Startin Somethin” as a duet with Jackson for the expanded edition of the album, known as Thriller 25.

And it was during conversations about Thriller 25 that Akon told Jackson about “Hold My Hand”.

Hold My Hand actually came about when I was working on the Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ for the re-release of this Thriller album,” recalls Akon.

“And we were talking about concepts for the new album itself. And at that moment, that’s when I was like, yo, I think I might have the record for you.”

“He asked me to send the track to him,” recalls Akon.

But Akon says that he opted against sending it, instead telling Jackson that he would play it for him when they were in the studio together.

And according to Akon, when Jackson finally heard it, the pop icon fell in love with it:

“And he heard it, and off the top he knew it. He’s like: Oh, this is it! This is amazing. We gotta get in the studio and do this record! And that’s what ended up happening.”

To record Jackson’s vocals for the track, Akon turned to studio engineer Mark ‘Exit’ Goodchild.

Goodchild had previously recorded Akon’s vocals for his “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” duet with Jackson, but this would be his first time recording the King of Pop himself.

Jackson’s vocals for “Hold My Hand” were recorded in late December 2007 at Studio X – a state-of-the-art recording studio located at the Palms Cascio Resort in Las Vegas, where Jackson was living at the time.

Goodchild ranks recording Jackson’s vocals among the most extraordinary experiences of his career as an audio engineer.

“He was in the booth and he was singing his butt off,” recalls Goodchild.

“And after every [vocal] take he was like, Sorry, sorry! And I’m like, what is he saying sorry for? I looked at Akon… and we’re like, it sounds amazing! And we had goose bumps. And it wasn’t just because it was Michael Jackson – it was because he was singing his butt off!”

Moroccan-Swedish producer RedOne, who was also in the studio when Jackson recorded his vocals, recalls the same thing:

“Me and Akon were watching him work in the studio, laughing like little children. Michael is such a perfectionist in everything he does. Every detail is perfect. It’s all ear candy.”

Goodchild agreed:

“He was so well-practiced, and so good at singing that his chops and delivery were way better than anybody we’ve ever dealt with.”

Akon recalls that Jackson’s performance of the track elevated it from a good record, to a great record.

“He finished all the vocals. We added some incredible ad libs and everything to it. And made it into more of an MJ record. With the MJ touch. And believe me, that was a big touch. Once he laid it, it was out of here, you know.”

Once Jackson had recorded his vocals, a rough composite was edited together as a duet between the King of Pop and Akon.

Akon first mentioned “Hold My Hand” publicly in an 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.”

It was rare for Jackson to unveil his music before it was finished. But in January 2008, the pop star excitedly played a rough mix of the track for his nephew, Taj Jackson.

Hold My Hand was the last song my uncle Michael every played to me in person,” recalls Taj.

“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, in June 2008 – merely five months after the pop star recorded it – the track leaked online.

ABOVE: Leaked version of “Hold My Hand” from 2008

Once it hit the internet the song spread like wildfire, with illegal download links appearing on practically every celebrity news website and music blog around the world.

And Jackson was devastated.

The pop star’s longtime recording engineer, Michael Prince, who was working with Jackson at the time “Hold My Hand” leaked, recalls:

“He was truly upset when the song he did with Akon leaked. He would just get this sad look on his face like, how could this happen? Because 20 years ago this would not have happened. And somehow everybody in the world has a copy of it. And that really upset him because he liked that song a lot.”

Akon gave a detailed account of the events surrounding the leak during an appearance on Tavis Smiley’s PBS television show in January 2009:

“Me and Mike did this incredible record called Hold My Hand and the record is amazing. Phenomenal. 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 continues:

“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 we couldn’t [release it]. 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.”

Twelve months after the leak, on June 25, 2009, Jackson passed away, and “Hold My Hand” remained unreleased.

Shortly following his death, a collection of Jackson’s personal notes were recovered from the pop star’s home. Among the notes were several handwritten song lists – songs that Jackson had planned to continue working on in consideration for his next album.

One particular note that was recovered consisted of 28 song titles. Among those 28 titles was “Hold My Hand”.

Hand-written note found in Jackson’s home following his death.

Nine months after Jackson’s death, on March 15, 2010, the pop star’s estate signed a record-breaking $250 million deal with Sony Music.

The deal afforded the record company the exclusive rights to release up to 10 projects with Jackson’s music over a 7-year period, and the first project was set to be an album of Jackson’s previously unreleased songs.

The lead single from the posthumous album – simply titled Michael – was “Hold My Hand”.

Back when Jackson’s nephew, Taj, first heard “Hold My Hand” in January 2008, he offered his uncle 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.”

Akon agreed, telling me via Twitter that the version on the Michael album would feature additional unheard Jackson vocals that hadn’t yet been mixed into the version that leaked online.

Akon also stated the following in an official press release regarding the Michael album and “Hold My Hand” single:

“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 final 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 its release on November 15, 2010, “Hold My Hand” reached the top 10 in fifteen countries. It also became Jackson’s 48th top 40 single in United States, peaking at #39 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Looking back, the track’s chief songwriter, Claude Kelly, who has since written mega-hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Bruno Mars, was simply content with the fact that his favourite artist of all had honoured him with the ultimate complement – recording his work:

“[Michael Jackson] is my all-time favourite artist, so it’s kind of sweeter for me than any of the other songs I’ve done. Despite it didn’t go number one. It didn’t match Thriller or anything else he’s done. But I can say I was one of the last people to have a song recorded by Michael Jackson. That’s good enough.”

A music video for the song (above) was released on December 9, 2010. The video – commissioned by Sony Music and Jackson’s estate – was directed by Mark Pellington.

Damien Shields is the author of the book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examining the King of Pop’s creative process, and the producer of the podcast The Genesis of Thriller which takes you inside the recording studio as Jackson and his team create the biggest selling album in music history.

Share Button