Narada Michael Walden, Grammy-Winning Hit Producer & Songwriter, Talks About His Hit Songs With Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey
For the past four decades, Narada Michael Walden has been a hit record producer, songwriter, artist and drummer who has worked with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and many other artists. He’s a three-time Grammy Award winner, including for Producer of the Year, and he produced more hits for Houston than any other producer.
Although he’s more well known for being a top record producer, Walden has been a very successful, hit songwriter who has co-written a substantial number of classic pop/R&B hits. He co-wrote two number one hits: “How Will I Know” for Houston and “I Don’t Wanna Cry” for Carey. He also co-wrote two of Franklin’s biggest hits of the 1980s, “Freeway of Love” (for which he won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song) and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.”
In addition, Walden’s co-wrote the pop hits “I Love Your Smile” (Shanice Wilson), “Tell Me What You Want Me To Do” (Tevin Campbell), “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (Jermaine Stewart), “How Can I Ease The Pain” (Lisa Fischer), “You’re a Friend of Mine” (Clarence Clemmons & Jackson Browne), and “Let Me Be Your Angel” (Stacy Lattisaw). He also co-wrote the theme song to the James Bond movie, License To Kill (which was sung by Gladys Knight) and he co-wrote the #1 R&B hit “Baby Come To Me” for Regina Belle.
Walden has also written or co-written songs for many other artists. Notably, he wrote four instrumental songs for rock legend Jeff Beck’s Wired album, which was certified platinum. And he’s co-written songs for Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Steve Winwood, Gladys Knight, Sheena Easton, Angela Bofill, Sister Sledge, Phyllis Hyman and Eddie Murphy.
Besides writing songs for other artists, he has written songs and composed instrumental music for his own albums. Here’s his album discography as an artist: Garden of Love Light (1976); I Cry, I Smile (1977); Awakening (1979); The Dance of Life (1979); Victory (1980); Confidence (1982); Looking at You, Looking at Me (1983); The Nature of Things (1985); Divine Emotion (1988); Sending Love to Everyone (1985); Thunder (2012); Love Lullabies for Kelly (2014); and Evolution (2015).
In addition to the hit songs listed above which he co-wrote, here are the classic hit singles he’s produced: “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “All The Man That I Need,” “So Emotional,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” “I’m Every Woman,” “One Moment in Time” (for Whitney Houston); “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ (for Aretha Franklin & George Michael), and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (for Starship). Notably, he also co-produced Mariah Carey’s breakthrough hit, “Vision of Love.”
Currently, Walden remains busy with several projects. He runs his longtime recording studio, Tarpan Studios (in San Rafael, CA), and he has his label, Tarpan Records. In addition, he’s producing albums for Cindy Blackman Santana, Neal Schon of Journey, and Jennifer Saran. He’s also developing and producing new artists.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Narada Michael Walden. He tells how he got started, and how he produced and co-wrote hits for Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and other artists.
Here’s the video of Aretha Franklin’s hit “Freeway of Love,” which was
co-written & produced by Narada Michael Walden.
DK: You started out as a drummer and jazz-rock/fusion artist. How did you make the transition to being a pop hit producer and songwriter?
Narada Michael Walden: Well, for me it’s all very natural, because I always say that I’m from Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is near Detroit and Chicago, in the middle of both those big cities. So out there, you hear all the great music. And then you know, it snows a lot in the winter, so there’s nothing much to do but hang in the house…just work, woodshed and play, and just love your music and listen to it. There again, you hear everything from Johnny Mathis to Jimmy Smith, Dave Clark Five, the big British Invasion coming through, Petula Clark with (the hit) “Downtown,” but also older music like Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod.” You hear so many types of music, man. We just loved music.
I never differentiated one type of music over another type. It could be (jazz artist) Cannonball Adderley or (rock legend) Jimi Hendrix—it was great music that I loved. So that’s why as a producer I grew. Originally, I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. I thought that would be a great thing, but he died the year I graduated high school in 1970. And that was a tremendous blow to the world. Then I just kept forging on in Los Angeles and different places, just trying to find a way to make it because it was a very difficult time to make it. Also, you had to learn to play different types of music really well. You had to be able to play music by (the bands) Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears, you had to play Curtis Mayfield—you had to be able to play anything that was hot. Otherwise, you weren’t really respected as a drummer or musician.
I’m just saying all this to prep you, that after playing with the (jazz-rock/fusion band) Mahavishnu Orchestra, and of course working with Jeff Beck and (rock artist) Tommy Bolin, you know, when it came down to producing hit records, it was never just identifying what planet are we on now or what’s in the Top 10. I would identify what [that sound] was, and then put whoever I was working with, taking my song and arranging it to be like what I was hearing in the Top 10. And then always adding extra grit into it because I’m a drummer and musician, so I always want to make things have extra spice—the drums would almost be like…BAM! So I think that was why I was able to get a jump on the pop world, because I was really borrowing what I was hearing in the pop world, and then adding my spice to it and making sure the thing was really doing a wonderful job. And we got lucky! God blessed us as things go. Then the phone started ringing, and the next thing you know, Clive Davis (CEO of Arista Records) is calling me and asked, “How’d you make that hit ‘Let Me Be Your Angel’ for Stacy Lattisaw?” You know, it was just good music to me.
DK: Who were some of the first artists you worked with as a writer/producer?
Here’s the video of Whitney Houston’s hit, “How Will I Know,” which was
co-written & produced by Narada Michael Walden.
Walden: The first album that I produced was with a jazz trumpet player named Don Cherry. He was signed to Atlantic Records, and (music exec) Ramon Silva, who signed me to Atlantic Records, asked me to produce him. Then I got married, and I moved to the Bay Area in 1978. It was around that time that Henry Allen, the great president of Cotillion Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic Records), he says to me, “You know, I would really like a hit for (11-year-old artist) Stacy Lattisaw.” I said, “Let me produce four songs for her. If you like it, I can finish the album—if you don’t like it, [it wouldn’t cost] that much.” He said, “Okay, you got it.” So then I really worked hard to write four hot songs, and because I’d rehearsed them with my band, I could quickly cut them, and then go to Stacy and record her vocals, and then get Mike Gibbs, who I’d worked with in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to do the string arranging.
So I turned it in fast and I was under budget, and it was just stellar. [Henry Allen] said, “Man, you’ve gotta finish this album” and we did, and we got lucky with (the hit) “Let Me Be Your Angel.” Having that hit opened up the doors for us to produce Sister Sledge, and we did an album called All American Girls. And then came calls from Clive Davis about producing Angela Bofill and Phyllis Hyman. I also worked with Patti Austin, who was signed to Quincy Jones’ label. And then Clive called again, asking “Would you want to work with Aretha Franklin?” That led to working with Aretha Franklin on her album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who. So that was how it kind of kicked off.
DK: I’ve always liked your hit song “Freeway Of Love” for Aretha Franklin. How did you co-write this song, and what was it like working with Aretha?
Walden: That song, I banged out on my black Yamaha piano at my home in Tiburon (CA). I bought this beautiful piano from (recording engineer) Rudy Van Gelder. Herbie Hancock and other great musicians had played that piano at his studio. I bought that piano and I had it shipped to California. [Playing] that piano, I was so inspired that I composed a lot of my hits, including “Freeway of Love” and “Let Me Be Your Angel.” So with “Freeway of Love,” I just remember one afternoon I was just bangin’ my jam, and I wasn’t thinking about Aretha. This was way before I worked with her. I just kind of banged it out. What I did was, I got my chorus, and I sang the melody for the verse as I was playing, and then I gave that (rough demo) to one of my favorite writers, Jeffrey Cohen. With Jeffrey, if I give him the direction of the hook, then he can beautifully [write the lyrics]. He can take my sketches and put on the words for it.
Then almost a couple years later, (writer/producer) Preston Glass was working with me, and we were now writing songs for Who’s Zoomin’ Who. He says to me, “What about that song ‘Freeway of Love’ for Aretha?” I said, “Wow…I would have never thought that.” You know I had a lot of songs—I’m always writing. And then we just dug it out, and we put it together. I played drums on it, Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame) played one-finger Moog bass, Preston played vibes, and we just put it down. And that’s how it happened.
Here’s the video of Mariah Carey’s hit, “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” which was
co-written & produced by Narada Michael Walden
DK: I looked on the credits of Whitney Houston’s hit “How Will I Know,” and you’re a co-writer on this song. I know Shannon Rubicam & George Merrill also co-wrote it, so how did you co-write this song?
Walden: While we were recording “Freeway of Love,” we got a call from Gerry Griffith (then A&R exec at Arista Records). He said, “You’ve gotta make time (to work with Whitney Houston). Let me send you this idea for a song that we’re thinking about for you.” So I get the song and hear it, and I said, “This song isn’t complete—it doesn’t have any verse.” So I told Gerry that he’s got to call the writers and ask them if I could write a verse, because there’s no verse in the song. And they said, “Okay, let’s see what you want to do.” So then I banged it out with the whole band—the same band I’d been working with for Aretha’s album. (He sings) “There’s a boy, I know…” I sing the whole melody and [tell them] how I wanted it to go. And they said, “We want to put our own lyric,” and I said, “no problem.” So they put their lyric in.
We then cut it and I called Whitney. I said, “I want to work with you on this song, but I don’t want to cut it in too high a key,” because the [opening verse melody] already starts high. She said, “No, I like it—go ahead and cut it high.” At the time Whitney was a new artist—I didn’t know yet how great her range was. But when I got to New York (to record her vocals), there she was in the studio, looking laid-back and confident, and looking gorgeous. Then she goes to the mic, and she just floors me! She sang it just like you hear on the record—the whole thing. She’s incredible. And then, since I knew her mother (Cissy Houston) and had worked with her, I asked Whitney to call her mother, to come to the studio and bring some of her friends (who were singers), to sing background vocals. They did, and Whitney, Cissy and the two other singers sang the backgrounds great and it was done.
DK: You also worked with Mariah Carey, and you co-wrote her #1 hit “I Don’t Wanna Cry.” How did you get together with Mariah?
Walden: I got a phone call from Tommy Mottola (then Sony Music President). He had just found Mariah and he was so excited by her. He sent me a cassette and her photo. I could tell she was a great singer. I said, “Okay, so what do you want me to do?” And he said, “I want you to give us a hit.” Then I suggested we meet, and just take it from there. So I flew to New York and I met with Mariah, and I was kind of taken by how shy she was. She was very sincere and sweet, but soft-spoken and shy. It’s not like the Mariah you see now…all full bloom. So I said, “Let’s just go get a (studio) room—we’ll just get a piano, a synthesizer, a drum machine and some microphones. Let’s see what we can write.” And we went to the studio, and we wrote four songs the first time—out came four songs.
Here’s the video of Shanice Wilson’s hit “I Love Your Smile,” which was
co-written & produced by Narada Michael Walden.
Right before we wrote “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” I looked at her….she’s very beautiful. I said, “Do you know what you need? You need a really sad-ass song…that people almost can’t believe that as beautiful as you are, you’re singing something this broke down.” I told her that when I was a little boy, I saw Little Stevie Wonder at the Regal Theater in Chicago, and he sang “Fingertips” and the place exploded. And on that same stage, out came a singer, Walter Jackson, and he was in a wheelchair. They wheeled him out. And he was singing this song called “It’s An Uphill Climb To The Bottom.” I was just a little kid, but I remember on the climax of the song, he falls out of the chair onto the floor! And people were screaming. He was on the floor, and he was still singing “it’s an uphill climb to the bottom,” and he’s just singing his ass off. I told Mariah, “You need a song that does that.” So I thought, let’s come up with a title with “crying” in it…”I Don’t Wanna Cry.” And it just hit me like a lightning bolt. (He starts singing) “I don’t want to cry…I don’t wanna cry.” And once Mariah got a hold of singing it, we quickly ironed out the melody. And then she said, “I want to finish the lyric,” and she did. She wrote a killer lyric in just one day. So we just got together like peanut butter and jelly. We kind of bonded, and that’s how “I Don’t Wanna Cry” happened and it became a number one record. And once the label heard the song, they also had me work on (production of the hit) “Vision of Love” and “There’s Got to be a Way” (from her debut album, Mariah Carey).
DK: Besides your work with Whitney, Aretha and Mariah, who were some of the other artists that you loved working with?
Walden: There were a lot. Lisa Fischer was one of my favorites—we wrote (the hit) “How Can I Ease The Pain” together. She also had [great vocal] ability—she was one of the three artists [I worked with], along with Mariah and Shanice Wilson, who could [sing] the fifth octave with mastery. And then there was Shanice—she’s such a great singer. To be able to capture a smash hit with her (“I Love Your Smile”) made me happy. I’m also very proud to have worked with Regina Belle; she’s one of the greatest singers ever. Our song was called “Baby Come To Me,” which we recorded in Hawaii.
Then you look at Tevin Campbell, who at the time was 14 years old singing (the hit) “Tell Me What You Want Me To Do.” Quincy Jones had signed him to his label, and he flew him on his jet with his mother. It was great that Quincy Jones, the God of all time, chose me to produce Tevin, his new discovery.
I wrote “Tell Me What You Want Me To Do” with Tevin and (songwriter) Sally Dakota. I was talking with Tevin, and I think Tevin even said, “Well, tell me what you want me to do.” I thought, that’s a great name for a song. So I started singing the title with my keyboard and microphone, and he joins in and I record everything. Then I said, “Okay, let’s work with Sally Dakota—Sally’s going to finish it and bring it back to me right away, and she did. So that’s how that song came.
Everything for me is always fast, because I believe that the spirit, which is God—he’s up your spirit, he’s up your soul. And then your mind gets focused on that, and you can only hold that kind of concentration for an hour or two at the most, and then it kind of fizzles out a little bit. And you move on. So you want to make sure that when you get hit, that you get as much out of it as you can. That’s my whole trick, man.
DK: I know you’ve also written songs for many film projects. Can you tell me how you co-wrote the theme song “License To Kill” for the James Bond movie?
Walden: It was a great honor to be part of the James Bond legacy, and it was a great challenge to make a hit out of the film’s title, “License To Kill.” So I thought about how I could make a big splash with “License To Kill” as the title. I went to my piano at my studio, and I came up with the chorus. And then I brought in Walter Afanasieff to help with the verse music. Then I got with my great lyricist Jeffrey Cohen, to find a way to speak it all out lyrically. It all came together very beautifully and dramatically. And then I went to [a studio] in Las Vegas to record Gladys Knight’s vocals. Gladys did have her concerns about singing a song called “License To Kill,” so we had to break it down, [to discuss] how she could feel good about it. So it was a process of love all along the way, and it turned out to be a wonderful thing. Gladys sang it beautifully—it was a great performance.
Here’s the video of Clarence Clemmons & Jackson Browne’s hit “You’re a
Friend of Mine,” co-written & produced by Narada Michael Walden.
DK: Thank you for telling me about your songs and inspiration. What are some of the new projects you’re working on? I read that you’re producing an album with Cindy Blackman Santana (Carlos Santana’s wife).
Walden: We all know Cindy as a stellar drummer, in the mindset of (jazz legend) Tony Williams. But also, for the first time she’s really stretching out as a singer, which I’m really enjoying. She’s like a 19-year-old as a singer because she hasn’t been beat up a vocalist yet, so she’s fresh. So we’re just writing songs that she feels in her heart she wants to say. Being married to Carlos Santana (since 2010), she’s in love, she’s excited, she’s happy and inspired. So it’s been a real joy to work with her.
I am also working with a talented singer/songwriter out of Hong Kong named Jennifer Saran. She is wonderful and has a new album coming out soon called Wake Up. This album will be coming out on Tarpan Records.The title song “Wake Up” features (male choral group) Ladysmith Black Mambazo from Africa and Carlos Santana also played on it. It’s a beautiful message type of song which I much enjoy doing at this time. Jennifer is a great songwriter—we’ve written almost 50 songs together.
I also have a girl I’m discovering named Nayah Damasen, who’s 11 years old, like another Stacy Lattisaw. Let me say that there will never be another Stacy Lattisaw, because Stacy was so pure and so powerful. But with Nayah I found another little powerhouse.
Another album I’m making is a symphonic record for (guitarist) Neal Schon of Journey. It’s called, The Universe. It’s a stellar record—we’re about halfway through it.
DK: I also read that you have a label, Tarpan Records.
Walden: Yes, with Tarpan Records, we can put our own things out. I want to put out some legendary records and some new artists. I’m trying to keep things going—keep the funk happening and keep things alive. The President of Tarpan Records is Steffen Franz. We are proud to be working with him and keeping open the independent channels for success and progress.
DK: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Walden: There are a couple more things. I want to mention and say thanks to John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, for bringing me out to the world. The first I song I wrote that was released, was “Cosmic Strut” on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1975 album, Visions of the Emerald Beyond.
As a songwriter, I don’t ever mention some of the things I wrote in my jazz-rock/fusion period, like Wired for Jeff Beck. There are four songs that I wrote on the Wired album that became my first gold album. These were instrumental songs—I very much love instrumental music too. People talk about the pop stuff, but don’t forget, I love…just music (laughs). Just music, man.