Herstory 23: Siedah Garrett, The Songwriter Behind “Man In The Mirror”
Empathy Is A Hard Load
“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter.”
— James Baldwin
Like everyone, I have a collection of heartaches to choose from. Some I’ve inherited, some I own, mine and some I’ve purchased from people I love. Recently, a friend told me that they were suicidal. I listen to the news and can’t avoid a story about someone dying in the hands of their appointed protectors or unexpected strangers. No matter where I go, I needle through a long thread of rough sleepers. Empathy can often be a hard load on the body when it’s heavier than shame. For the sake of my own mental health, I do everything in my power to not feel helpless about anything I can’t fix. Frankly, it’s easy to observe what’s wrong with the world and leave yourself out of it. This is what makes “Man In The Mirror” stand out among other hit songs that are “socially conscious”. It’s a first-person narrative in which the character is both the tunnel and the light at the end of it. To believe the world won’t fall apart, he must turn optimism into a focused task. One that can only be completed with an honest critique on how to improve their humanity.
Shining and Star-Like
Deborah Christine Garret was born in Los Angeles, California on the 24th of June, 1958. Being raised in Compton, her joy for singing began and blossomed, once her mother took her to sing at different churches. At the age of 13, annoyed with the fact people trimmed her name down to Deb, Debbie or Deedee, she changed it to Siedah — an Arabic name meaning “shining and star-like”. It seems as if she didn’t just change her name, she re-titled her entire life.
Here a few key moments that are responsible for Siedah’s introduction into the music industry:
At 15, she became a member of a five-piece band called Black Velvet & Satin Soul. They performed covers of top 40 hits in many clubs across the city.
Her mother was an interior designer who had singer D. J. Rogers as a client. She convinced him to take interest in Siedah’s and what she had to offer. When he eventually heard her sing, he recruited her as a backing vocalist on his 1977 album Love, Music And Life.
Siedah, through a close friend’s boyfriend, informed her that auditions were being held for Quincy Jones’s label Qwest Records. Not knowing what time the auditions started, she arrived five hours early and was third in line. Over the course of a nine-month period, she continued to receive letters of congratulations for passing to the next round as it continually narrowed down to a few finalists. She and three other singers were chosen to form the group Deco and signed to Qwest Records as recording artists.
Through the auditions, she met two songwriters, Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. Siedah began singing for their demos and one of them happened to be “Don’t Look Any Further”, a duet intended for former Temptations lead singer, Dennis Edwards, and Chaka Khan. The two could never arrange to be in the studio at the same time so Dennis, impressed with Siedah’s demo vocals, opted to keep it for the end product. “Don’t Look Any Further” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Black Singles Chart, #72 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #45 in the UK.
A Happy Accident
Siedah stumbled into songwriting headfirst even though it was never in the plans for her. Before signing to Qwest Records, Siedah noticed that Deco’s recording contract came paired with a publishing deal which meant they had to write their own songs. Siedah saw this as a heavy burden despite having written poems in the past. She refused to sign the contract, so Quincy gave the group an ultimatum, either everybody signs or nobody does.
In an attempt to fulfill her contractual agreement and not letting Quincy down, Siedah studied the craft of songwriting by observing how lyrics and vocal arrangements were written on each demo she sang for the producer/songwriters she was working with.
A Hidden Blessing
Despite Deco vanishing after a year, Siedah stayed signed to Qwest Records. Two years into her contract, Quincy and Michael Jackson were working on what ended up being the 1987 Bad album. One day, Quincy called a meeting with Garrett and five other songwriters to inform them Michael needed one more uptempo pop song to round out the album.
Siedah approached fellow songwriter Glen Ballard and asked if he would be up for the challenge to write something for the album. Glen sat down at the piano, pressed his fingers into the keys and began to play a chord progression, which triggered Siedah’s memory of a songwriting session she had with jazz pianist John Beasley two years prior.
At the time during the session, the phone rang and Beasley answered to initiate the conversation. At one point during the call, Siedah overhears John say “What man? Oh, the man in the mirror”. Without questioning it she wrote, “Man In The Mirror” in her notebook.
As Glen continued to play these chords, Siedah anxiously flicked through her notebook to find the page where the phrase lived. Within twelve minutes, Siedah and Glen wrote the first verse and chorus of “Man In The Mirror”. By the end of the week, they had a complete demo of the track. Siedah submitted the song to Quincy to his claim that it was the best song he heard in a decade. However, he wasn’t sure Michael would be willing to record a song he didn’t write himself. Quincy assured Siedah he’d record the song with James Ingram for his album if Michael didn’t.
Michael loved the song and “Man In The Mirror” became the fourth single off the Bad album. Originally released on January 16th, 1988, it topped the Billboard 100 charts for two consecutive weeks and peaked at #21 in the UK Singles Charts. Thirty-one years later, “Man In The Mirror” is still considered Michael’s most important song. Just Imagine if John Beasley let the phone go to answering machine.
The Astrology Of The Working Class
I read once that the biggest stars we see clothe the night sky has already crashed and burned out. I always use this as an analogy for anyone who built their smile from scratch with everything that should have killed them. The ones who come from very little and give us so much. “Man In The Mirror” is only a fraction of what Siedah has given to the world.
Here’s a playlist of some songs she’s either written, co-written or contributed vocals too. All of which I know have kept people living and loving. An ode to her undying legacy in music.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series —we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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