Artist: Michael Jackson
Cover Art Direction: Tony Lane & Nancy Donald
Cover Photo: Dick Zimmerman
Design Lyrics: Mac James
Design Style: Gretchen Valade & Design Pool
In 1982, Dick Zimmerman was commissioned to photograph Michael Jackson for the cover of his upcoming follow-up to Off the Wall. Surpassing all expectations, it would eventually go on to become the biggest selling album of all time. The album won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including “Album of the Year.” The album’s title, however, traces its conception back to more humble beginnings. As Rod Temperton recalls: “Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, 'You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.' I said, 'Oh great,' so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title Midnight Man. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as…Thriller.”
Needless to say, Temperton’s intuition was spot-on, as nearly 36 years later, the album remains one of the most impactful releases on the industry as a whole. Renowned photographer Dick Zimmerman photographed the iconic image that would become the album’s timeless cover art. In the transcript of an interview below, which he graciously offered to do shorty after Michael’s passing, he reflects on the process of working with Michael and bringing his vision to life.
The Creation of the Thriller Album Cover: Dick Zimmerman
Throughout the years of 1982-1994, I had the unique privilege of having three exclusive portrait sittings with Michael. The first was the Thriller album, the second was his narration the E. T. album for Steven Spielberg. The third was the exclusive wedding portraits with him and Lisa Marie, that were eventually distributed world-wide. During these years, I was very fortunate to have had some very personal conversations and came to know him on a level of intimacy that gave me insights into his character that impressed me deeply.
Michael Jackson was a brilliant, creative performing artist. We spent many private hours together creating and conversing during the years I worked with him, and so I’m sharing my thoughts.
The First Meeting
When I first met Michael Jackson at a recording studio on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood, he was three quarters through completing what would become the largest selling album in history. CBS records told me that there was another photographer in the running to do the project.
Michael wanted to personally meet both candidates before deciding who he wanted to work with on the album cover package. I now know, after having worked a substantial amount of time with Michael on other projects, that he needed someone who was at the top of his profession, wasn't egotistical, and was trustworthy and creative. Most importantly he needed someone who would treat him with delicacy and consideration, who wasn't threatening or offending.
My first impression of Michael as he slowly and carefully moved through the studio doors where our meeting would take place was that he was taller and thinner than I had expected. His hand shake was very delicate with hardly a squeeze, and I was very conscious to return the same.
As we talked, Michael would ask me questions in his gentle voice about my likes and dislikes. I could tell from the way that he posed his questions that I was being evaluated. That's when I first realized how important it was to Michael to work with the exact kind of person that would make him feel comfortable. Our meeting lasted about forty-five minutes and we parted with a cordial good-bye.
The Call Back
Three days later I received a phone call from CBS Records saying that phase one was over and now Michael wanted to come see my studio and look at the quality of my photographs. My studio entrance has a loud buzzer, but instead there was a very gentle knock at the door. Rather than have my secretary answer the door, I wanted to answer it myself. I wanted Michael to know that I was real and approachable and also wanted to avoid anything that may have had the potential of creating an uncomfortable situation for him. Evidently I passed the test as I received confirmation two days later from CBS that Michael had selected me to do the honors, and the album shoot was scheduled to take place in two weeks.
My fee from CBS was to be $4,000.00 – which was very good back in 1982 (and just about top dollar for an album cover). During the next two weeks, I had meetings with the creative heads from CBS and Freddie Demann, Michael's manager at the time. The purpose was to create a visual direction for the album that everyone agreed on. I presented various ideas that I wanted to execute which were all agreed upon.
The day of the shoot arrived. I hired one of the best fashion stylists in LA to gather a large variety of wardrobe, and we began the arduous process of selecting attire for the cover and inside spread. After about an hour of weeding through the wardrobe, Michael couldn't find anything he was crazy about. I started to panic. His eyes lit up when he noticed the white suit that I was wearing. He said, "That's the look I like, do we have anything like that?" We didn't. Time was fleeting. I was concerned about having enough time to execute my cover ideas. I indicated that we were about the same height and build and asked if he would like to wear mine. That was exactly what he wanted. Fortunately for the session and the time involved, the suit fit like it was tailored for him.
We had decided prior to the session that Michael would have a tiger cub in the photograph so we had a selection for him to choose from. He loved a six-week-old cub but was very squeamish about letting it get too close to his face because of possible scratches. Throughout the session I had to get Michael to forget about getting scratched, and to focus his attention on me and my camera.
During breaks, Michael would stand in front of a full-length mirror and practice continual spins. I was privileged to get a personal preview of those legendary ones that are now so familiar to us all. He would just come alive in front of that mirror. It was fascinating because he had such a shy and subdued manner throughout the photo session, but in front of that mirror, dancing, he was electric. That was the first time I realized that I was witnessing something very special. For lunch, he ordered a special meal brought in from a vegetarian restaurant on 3rd Avenue, which was his favorite in town. In fact, a few months later, Michael hired that same chef as his personal cook.
The photo session lasted about 6 hours with three different set-ups and no particular problems out of the ordinary. I was very impressed with Michael's diligence as he had someone from his production company using a counter to count every click of the camera to make sure that he saw that every frame was presented to him once finished. This spoke elegantly as to his constant and detailed professionalism. At the day’s end, we said good-bye, and arranged to meet in a few days to go over the results.
About four days later, the photos were ready and we met at the recording studio on Beverly Boulevard. Michael was in the middle of finishing up one of the tracts, so I set up my light table and spread out the transparencies so he could see them all at once.
The Album Cover
Michael walked out of the studio into the reception area where my presentation was set up. He was in a very good mood. He looked over the transparencies and was very excited and pleased with what he saw. He said "There are so many good ones here, how can I ever make a decision?" He told me to hold on a minute, and then ran back into the studio. After a moment, he came back out with Quincy Jones, who was producing the album and was evidently very respected by Michael. Quincy took one look at the transparencies and with a confident smile, without any hesitation, pointed to one, and said, "That's your cover, Michael!"
I was totally impressed by that decision as that was the fastest I have ever seen anyone select a final transparency for anything, and it was a good choice. Michael was extremely happy. Quincy was happy. CBS was happy. I was ecstatic, and judging by the fact that it is still the highest selling album in history, I can say without a doubt that it was the correct choice and the world was happy. It has become quite iconic. Who would have suspected that the click of the camera, 1/60th of a second, would create the unforgettable image it has become in history.
The following are a few of my personal thoughts and observations that I would like to share. As I had the opportunity to be close to Michael during some very private discussions as we worked and conversed together off and on for those 12 years. I do feel that I have a sense for who he really was.
At a Restaurant
Two or three months after the Thriller album was released, it was number one on the charts and Michael was the number one celebrity in the music world. My wife Patty and I were in a restaurant in Hollywood having dinner. This particular restaurant is popular with celebrities and was Michael's favorite restaurant, as it was mostly vegetarian. Hollywood personalities are more aloof and very rarely go out of their way to issue a personal goodbye when leaving a restaurant. We noticed Michael was sitting far across this packed restaurant in a corner. I wanted to say hello, but I didn't want to bother him while he was eating.
About an hour into dinner, I felt a gentle little tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw it was Michael. Rather than exit through the door which was near his table across the room, he had wound his way through the packed tables to come to say hello! We shook hands and very sincerely, in his quiet, shy way, said, “Thank you for creating my very beautiful album cover.” I was impressed that this man, the top celebrity of the period, had gone out of his way to cross that crowded room to personally thank me. All the eyes in the restaurant were on us, but I didn’t care.
When Michael was hired by Steven Spielberg to narrate the E. T. story, he insisted that Steven also hire me to create the album cover and the inside poster. That evening, after the session was over and the film developed, I went over to meet with Michael to show him the results of our co-creation. It was about one in the morning. After going over the film and after he relaxed and we got comfortable, he proceeded to be very candid with me with regards to the media and their ongoing negativity toward him. He had just completed an exclusive interview and felt that he was extremely candid. He said that even after it aired they found ways to degrade him. With tears in his eyes he said, "I really don't know what to do any more. I don't know how to handle the media any more. Everything I say they twist and make me look bad. I don't know what to say or do anymore." What impressed me most about this meeting and our in-depth conversation was his most important statement to me, that he was extremely concerned about the welfare of the children and their future existence on this planet. That statement was how I will always remember him!
Within the album sleeve were two sketches by Michael Jackson, touting his artistic vision for “The Girl is Mine” and “Thriller.” Perhaps they served as preliminary ideas for what would become the fully realized concept.
Seven singles were released from the album, all of which reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Three of the singles, “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” were accompanied by ground-breaking short films that revolutionized the industry.
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.