Tom Bähler's Soulful Memories with Michael Jackson

- Christina Chaffin


DAYTON, Ohio – Electrifying sell-out crowds, with distinguished vocals and mind-blowing dance routines is one way fans remember Michael Jackson. For Tom Bähler, memories of Jackson are meaningful, filled with harmonies, laughter and Motown soul.

As a songwriter, studio singer, arranger and producer, Bähler has worked with a variety of artists, including the Temptations, Barbara Streisand, Elvis Presley and Smokey Robinson. Among his list of seasoned performers is Michael Jackson, dating back to the early 1970s. "Back in the day when I first met Michael, he was warm, and at the same time, inside of himself," Bähler said. "He knew there was a fire inside of himself."

Bähler, along with his brother John Bähler began working at Motown Records in 1972. They were given multiple tasks, including background singing and vocal arranging. Together, they worked with the Jackson 5. "We use to start [around] 4:30 p.m., after school [let out,]" Tom said. "They'd arrive in a limousine from school and go straight into the studio."

According to Tom, he and John treasure their memories at Motown because of the music. "It was a wonderful chapter in our lives," he said. "It was the greatest experience ever. I think it was spiritually fulfilling."

Tom reminisces about Jackson and considers his memories to be priceless. He said it's hard to pinpoint specific memories because there are many, but said he will never forget what Jackson did one day in Motown's studio. "Being the youngest of the Jackson 5, everybody was always telling Michael where to stand," he said. "It wasn't because he was ‘Michael Jackson,' but because he was the youngest. One day, Michael walked over and leaned against a piano and just started singing. I was thinking, ‘A kid this young with this much soul.' It was just extraordinary."

In 1973, Tom began working with Quincy Jones. (He arranged Jones' album "Body Heat.") The two became fast friends and enjoyed working together. At the same time, Tom and John continued working with a variety of artists, including the Jackson 5. Jones knew who the group was, but never worked with them musically.

Both Tom and Jones remained busy with music-related projects, but stayed connected. In 1977, Jones began directing the 1978-released film "The Wiz." Tom worked behind the cameras as the film's vocal arranger. The cast featured a star-studded lineup, including Diana Ross as "Dorothy," Nipsey Russell as the "Tin Man," Ted Ross as the "Cowardly Lion," Lena Horn as "Glinda the Good Witch," Richard Pryor as "The Wiz" and Jackson as the "Scarecrow." "When we did ‘The Wiz' I knew Michael, but Quincy was [just getting better acquainted with him,]" Tom said. "It was fun seeing that relationship grow. It shows you what can happen when you have the right combination of mind and spirit."
The same year, 1977, Tom wrote a ballad describing emotional heartbreak, detailing what was currently going on in his life. The song was called "She's Out of My Life." "I was going with a wonderful woman and woke up with her, and she wanted to get married, and I wasn't ready," he said. "These thoughts were going through my mind on the freeway one night. I said [to myself,] ‘Hey man, you made a choice. Face it. She's out of your life.' I was like ‘Wow' at what I was thinking. By the time I got home, the song was written in 13 minutes."

Tom's ballad is featured on Jackson's 1979 solo album Off the Wall. According to him, Jackson wasn't his original choice to sing the track. "But [Michael] understood drama," he said. Jackson was moved by the song and tearful toward the end of every recording he made. Tom said Jones had Jackson record the song 12 times before deciding to keep the emotional ending. The version released on Off the Wall is the first recording Jackson made. "When he sang ‘She's Out of My Life," he cried," Tom said. "People don't hear how he apologized at the end of every take. I asked Michael on a break if he was alright. I said, ‘Hey man, sorry if I hit a chord.' [Michael] said, ‘No man, I was just getting into the lyrics."

Throughout his career, Tom and John remained connected with Jackson, becoming his vocal arrangers. "Any time he'd do something on voices, he'd call us," Tom said. "Michael was great. He was always open [to our comments.] But at the same time, he was an incredible singer."
Tom said he can't remember every song he worked on with Jackson while at Motown, but said he has beautiful memories, filled with "funny moments." "There were so many songs, that if I hear them, then I can remember them," he said. Still, one song stands out in his mind: Jackson's version of "Rockin' Robin." Tom remembers helping him practice his vocals for the song. Another reason the track is important to him is because of a memory he has with Jackson years later. "John and I met with Michael at Neverland Ranch, and when he came into the room and sat down, John and I got on each side of him and started singing, ‘Tweedly-deedly-dee. Tweedly-deedly-dee.' [Michael] was a fun guy. He had such a bright spirit."

Memories of music fill Tom's head when thinking of Jackson, and are close to his heart. "Michael was an amazing spirit and had a real gift for singing," he said. "Everything he did, I 
found to be unique, funky, hip and tasteful. He was one of the greatest entertainers I've ever encountered and I'll never forget him."

Original article link: Tom Bähler's Soulful Memories with Michael Jackson

Behind the article: When Tom and I arranged to speak on the telephone, I knew we were going to talk about his song, "She's Out of My Life." The exciting and surprising aspect was when we began talking about his musical memories with Michael as a whole. "People always ask me, 'What did you guys work on?,' but we did so many [songs], that I need to hear them to fully remember," he said. "But Michael was great. Everything he did, I found to be very unique, funky, hip and tasteful."

Toward the end of our conversation, Tom said he remembers Michael's sincere feelings of missing his youth when he was a child. "We use to start at about 4:30 p.m., after school and the boys would get dropped off at the studio," he said. "One day when they were being dropped off, Michael got out of the limo and saw these kids playing in the park, and he cried. I witnessed that. It was sad to watch him cry and I thought at the time, 'Here's a kid who gets up and goes to school and works all day long, and he sees kids outside playing basketball and passing football, and he goes into the studio to sing.'" Tom said his memory of this is sad, but said Michael's emotions are what made him "the amazing person" he was.