Free To Be – Part 5: Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack

The Free To Be…You And Me record was released in November 1972. It attracted a great deal of attention and we were soon at work on a television version for ABC. We decided to adapt my song “When We Grow Up” (lyrics by Shelley Miller) into a duet and ask Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack to sing it. They both agreed, and Shelley made some changes in the lyrics (See Part 3: Diana Ross) and we had our duet.

I had a bumpy start with Roberta Flack. I was working on the arrangement for “When We Grow Up” in my hotel room and the phone rang and I found myself listening to a tirade from Ms. Flack. “I’ve been in LA for two days and no one has called me. I am not used to this kind of treatment!” Of course, no one had told me, as composer and Musical Director, to send a basket of goodies to her room and stock the mini-bar. I apologized for the slight and called everyone I could think of to give the diva some stroking.

Michael was an exuberant, talented, friendly kid when I worked with him. This is all the more remarkable in light of what we now know was frequent mental and physical abusive treatment by his father.

I met Roberta and Michael for the first time in a recording studio in LA and we rehearsed and recorded their voices for playback on the video stage at ABC. I had spoken to them by phone to set a key before I left New York.

They both impressed me with their musicianship and ability to learn quickly and they knew intuitively how to imbue their characters with just the right amount of child-like fun. They were very natural together and believable as kids, even though Michael was 14 and Roberta was 33. I was happy to discover that their voices blended beautifully.  The irony of Michael singing “we don’t have to change at all” echoed in his later years.

At the instrumental session for the record I had used two flutes, piano, two guitars, bass, drums, and finger cymbals. For the television version, I added a small string section for the third verse.

With an imaginative set by Broadway legend Tony Walton and direction by the multi-talented Bill Davis, “When We Grow Up”was one of the standout segments of Free To Be.


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