Interview with Dorian Holley:
Michael Jackson, Legacy of a Legend

I arrive at the home of Dorian Holley, who was one of Michael Jackson’s long-time back-up singers – and is a respected singer/songwriter in his own right. A beautiful collection of African masks welcomes me to Dorian’s elegant living room. Everything is warm and inviting, and a grand piano makes me wonder how many songs may have been produced in this room. One of Dorian’s three daughters is curious about me, the visitor to her home, the lady with the long, dark hair and the Italian accent, and she says goodnight to me from the bottom of the stairs. It is not the first time that I have encountered her cute smile; she was at her father’s concert that was broadcast on the Internet a couple of nights before, a show that was certainly worthy to be seen.

The band with the exciting solos of Brazilian guitar player Roberto Montero, Michael Norfleet at keyboards and Philip Bynoe at bass, underlined by the silky and involving rhythms of Dion Causey at drums and beautiful Monette Marino-Keita at percussion, was a pleasure to hear and extremely organic; Dorian’s vocals flawless. People from the audience held smiles on their faces until the end. Dorian has a natural way to connect with his audience that is impressive. He is a truthful singer who does not decorate a song like a Christmas tree; he is tasteful and knows how to make everything fall into place. His reputation as a singer/songwriter and one of Michael Jackson’s long-time back-up singers also attracts people from everywhere, and the club was so crowded that I could not find a chair for myself until somebody offered me a small table to sit on.

Inevitably, when Dorian asks me if I liked the show, during my visit to his home, I could not help but state: “Your show was really good. I was sitting on a wooden table instead of a chair, and I could not feel the pain!” We both laughed….

At Dorian’s home, my eyes are now wandering across his spectacular living room, and I cannot help noticing a bright red book that is placed on the coffee table right in front of me. The title of the book is Opus, and across its cover is printed the name of a music legend Dorian worked with for a long period of his life: Michael Jackson. Opening the rare book for me, Dorian is willing to show me some never-before-seen photographs of Michael, precious moments from his life collected for the eyes of only a few selected readers. Dorian was one of these readers, and he also sang for Michael’s private funeral. He explains that Michael loved the book, but unfortunately, did not have enough time to complete it before his death; a photographer finished the book on his behalf instead. I feel like a child in a candy store, looking through the book, and I can’t help but show my excitement about being able to see the photos that are a secret to the rest of the world. But I am also curious to know about the beginning of Dorian’s singing career and the pattern of his life, what caused him to become so accomplished, a musician not only appreciated by fans, but also by his peers—his fellow musicians. I begin my interview with Dorian by asking him to tell me about his life in music: how it began.

Dorian Holley:
I first fell in love with music and singing because of a beautiful choir at a Santa Monica church. I was always singing; my parents played all different types of music, and I had some piano lessons as a kid. As a pre-teen I was part of a boys' choir that became a real school from Tuesday through Sunday. The time was equally split between other school subjects and music. The pupils did not have to pay tuition, but they paid the school’s bills singing in concerts, temples, movie and TV shows.

It was a great experience to learn all different styles of music every day. Bob Mitchell, who was a former child star, directed us. His voice had been in many movies starting with a 1940’s film with Bing Crosby called Going My Way to the more recent works like The Exorcist or The Carol Burnett Show. Mr. Mitchell was also a music historian. Therefore, if you would choose a song, he would tell us when and how that song was composed, who wrote it, the time period and the meaning behind it. He was a great educator. Incidentally, I buried Mr. Mitchell and Michael Jackson the same week. I sang at both of their funerals. And both artists were still working until the end.

After school I joined a gospel band for 12 years, in which I really learned the art of performing. We rehearsed every Saturday. Maybe we missed only a couple of rehearsals in 12 years, and we were very serious, naïve and in love with what we were doing. When I starting earning money singing I had to leave the band, because one of my first jobs was with Michael, and I had to go on tour for a long time.

MARI: Did he [Michael] find you in that gospel band?

DH: No, I auditioned for Michael on my own, but I was still singing with the band until that point. When I started working for him, I stopped working as a soloist for more than 20 years without thinking about it. When I finally released my CD and started to perform as a solo artist, it was extremely difficult. However, after 23 years, I went back to doing exactly what I was doing when I started. I am now performing solo again with my band that you saw on Saturday night. You think you grow to a point, and that you don’t have to do certain things anymore. Instead, life is a circle.

MARI: During the show you mentioned that you would be working on your new CD soon. Do you write your own songs?

DH: Yes. But I think that the next CD will be covers and some of Michael Jackson’s songs.

MARI: I am assuming they will be covers with very original arrangements, like the ones you performed at your show?

DH: I really like the way that we are presenting them, and I did not hear them performed that way anywhere else.

MARI: They were very interesting, and it is very difficult to compare yourself to a giant like Michael Jackson. However, I noticed that fortunately Dorian was still there; your touch was present. Did Michael ever hear those arrangements?

DH: No, because I would have never thought about it when I was working with him. When I started to sing them my way, he unfortunately passed away.

MARI: What do you think he would say about those arrangements?

DH: I don’t know. I think it would be fun for him….

MARI: Lately I was offered, as a songwriter, some non-orthodox publishing deals from record labels and distributors. I should not be surprised after so many years of experience. Do you feel that when you grow as an artist and reach a higher level it is easier or more difficult to trust people in the [music] business?

DH: I think it is more difficult the less experience we have. It is a hard question…it’s easier if you are in a position when you don’t have to say yes [to non-orthodox offers]…. One of the things that I teach is auditioning. The only way to succeed at an audition is to come from a position of strength. If you come from a position of weakness, you lose because of the energy that you create. It is exactly like a relationship between a boy and a girl. If you are desperate to have a boyfriend and you enter a room with such desperation, nobody would even notice you. Instead, if you enter the same room with confidence, everybody would try to talk to you and date you. It is the same things with an audition; when you don’t need the job and you don’t care about it, you have the confidence and the energy to attract people. When you really hope and need a job, you don’t sing or perform at your best, and eventually, you will not obtain it. I have been blessed to work more often than most people. Therefore, I haven’t been faced with shady deals. When you are starting your career and you want to be noticed and to build your reputation, people have the tendency to come to you with crap. The secret is to keep in mind who you are and to think: “I am not that bad. I’ll pass…!” Even if you may not have anything really going on, if you push a couple of those deals out of the way, then eventually the good deal will come.

MARI: This is a crazy business, and I noticed that you have a deep connection with your daughters and your family. Do they keep you grounded?

DH: Fortunately for me, before I entered the music business I was not really chasing after success because I did not know how. Somehow I did not really consider that you could earn a living as a musician. I did not know anybody who did it. Therefore, I was just singing in my band because I love music. I had a job in sales, and I already earned money to buy my car and my home, and my oldest daughter was already born. When I got into the business I was older than most people who start. I had responsibilities, and I could never get involved in drugs or crazy things. Moreover, I was also coming from a very religious family. It helps to be in that position because I was not tempted by the things that a 19-year-old may be tempted by.

MARI: It must have been hard to be a dad and then touring at the same time….

DH: My family came with me.

MARI: All the time?

DH: Not all the time, but very often. I went out of the country for the first time when I was 29 years old, and my daughter had her second birthday in Japan.

MARI: Great! And I bet they must have learned a lot from those journeys. Watching your show I noticed that you offered the audience a heartbreaking performance of "Billie Jean," and at the very end, you made us all laugh so much making fun of the lyrics. Is it important not to take yourself too seriously?

DH: Yes, I think it is important. However, you can only do it when you have enough experience to get over yourself. When you start singing you take everything very seriously; you may want to sing slow, painful tunes, and you are preoccupied about the way you look and about your performance too much. When you acquire experience you understand that, no matter what they say, the real reason for every artist to be on stage is to get attention. The best way to get attention is doing something well, and if you accomplish that goal, you will be automatically rewarded with attention. You don’t need to worry about seeking attention for attention’s sake. I have a funny personality, and I am enjoying jokes and silly rhymes since I was a child. While I was getting dressed for church, my dad used to create funny songs. I always loved reading and writing. You have to loosen up; don’t be too serious about it.

MARI: This attitude would also help you to enjoy yourself with the band rather than wondering about the audience’s reaction….

DH: Right. Being preoccupied with the audience makes you stumble. A couple of times during the show the words were not there, but I knew that if I kept moving my mouth the words would come out, and if not, I would make something up, and I would be fine. Worrying is a big problem.

MARI: Anyway, you cannot please everybody. Right?

DH: You can’t. What I teach to my students is that the audience is with you in real time, and it moves with you. If I make a mistake and I look upset and worried about it, the audience would also be left in that moment. As I try to move on, they will have to catch up with me. That process can take most of the song, two or three songs, or I can even lose them for the rest of the show! Instead, if I am experienced enough to just keep going, most of people would not even notice that I made a mistake.

MARI: How was your very first audition and encounter with Michael Jackson?

DH: The audition was on videotape. Almost everybody in town auditioned for that job. My first encounter with him was after I had been hired. The first rehearsal was supposed to be on a Saturday, and on Tuesday, Michael decided that he wanted to meet everybody. I was working that day, and I had been up since 4:00 a.m. They called my wife, who told me that Michael wanted to meet me immediately. I did not expect it. I was in Redondo Beach, and he was in Hollywood. I had to drive across town, and I did not have the time to change my clothes. I looked like an everyday person, and I was not the only one among the vocalists who was meeting him for the first time with the wrong appearance. He was very nice, but I know he was troubled about our look. Michael told the management how disappointed he was, about how sloppy we looked, and that he wanted us to buy new clothes. Fortunately, he had people to do our hair and dress us…! He was really worried that they might have made a mistake! Fortunately for us, we only had three weeks to rehearse before the first show. Now I am wondering whether, having enough time, I would have been hired the same.

MARI: He was an extremely detail-oriented person. When I first met you, I heard you saying that there was always that one note each tour that he could not hear. Did you feel the pressure and the responsibility of working for somebody like Michael? Were you a bit nervous the very first time that you sang with him?

DH: No, because there was so much work to do. We had so much material to learn and only three weeks to rehearse, while the rest of the band had already rehearsed for a while. I was completely ready for the job; I was not thrown into something that I could not handle. I was singing for years; with my band alone I had 12 years of experience, and everything that I did with my band prepared me for that. Before I worked for Michael, I recorded with other artists earlier that year. I met my best friend Darryl Phynnessee [when I began working for Michael]. He is the one who put together the group of vocalists for Michael. It was the first of the year, and we started working with Michael as vocalists at the beginning of July. After he met me, he started hiring me as a background singer with famous artists. I had worked on a few records and some demo sessions. However, when I worked in those sessions, everything was too slow for me because I used to sing with my band in studio, and we were very quick because of our limited budget. When I was called for those sessions instead, you’ll have one song and four hours to record it. It was too slow for me; I told myself I could have recorded ten songs in four hours. Working on Michael’s stuff for the whole day was a huge luxury compared to the way that Darryl and I worked. We were very serious, and we wanted to be perfect. Listen to Michael Jackson…that’s the way he worked. I went from rehearsing with my Gospel band only one day a week before performing to having seven days a week from 10 a.m. till 11 p.m. to work on Michael’s material…! It was so much time, and they were paying us more money than I ever made in my life. By the time we played that first show in Tokyo, we were absolutely ready. The band was amazing. Have you seen videos of those shows?

MARI: I think I did not miss one, and I personally watched the Bad Tour in Rome. I was 13 years old, and Michael was my favorite artist

DH: His music is so strong. Sometimes when I listen to it, I am surprised about how good it is. Because it was so long ago, and you may think it is old, but it is so good

MARI: I agree with you. Even the recordings of Michael when he was 7 years old are still so fresh and beautiful. Could you tell me what you learned from Michael as an artist?

DH: There is something very special about people like Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder…I cannot describe it in a few words…. He [Michael] worked as hard as a new artist would do…even knowing that he was the king, he was at the top. If he came to rehearsal, and he would have been in disguise, you would have thought: “This guy is going to make it big because he works so hard!”

MARI: He had total dedication…!

DH: Yes, always.

MARI: During the last few days of rehearsal for the This Is It Tour, did you notice if there was anything wrong with Michael and his health?

DH: No, everything was fine; that is why the news of his death was a shock to me. You would think that people would have been alerted if something was wrong….

MARI: Do you think that somebody could have prevented that tragedy from happening?

DH: No, because if what they say is true, everyday people would not even get legal access to some of the things he was using. However, when you become as famous as he was, nobody says “no” to you. Plus, Michael was provided with medicines by a doctor that cared more about money than anything else.

MARI: I always thought that Michael was a very sensitive and generous person, and that maybe he really started to die inside when he became the victim of false child molestation accusations. Do you think that his personal problems got worse at that point?

DH: We can only speculate about that. Obviously, it personally deeply hurt him.

MARI: What is your last memory of him?

DH: Our last rehearsal was great; he was excited about seeing the show coming alive. The last day several significant pieces of the show were performed, and he was very happy because the stage was near to be completed, and we were only one week away from the first show in London.

MARI: Was he a funny person? Do you remember any particular joke or funny event that happened during the tours?

DH: Many moments; he was just a fun-loving guy. For how serious the work was for all of us, it was very easy to pull a trick on him. Many times during the show he would pass by, and I would tell him: “Your zipper is open.” He would say: “Really?” It does not matter how many times I would tell him—maybe I did it at least 20 times—he would always fall for it.

MARI: You also worked on the famous TV show American Idol as a vocal couch. How long did you work on the show?

DH: Five years.

MARI: Five years is a long time…! How did the show change through the years?

DH: In a way it changed from being a pageant show to a show that is trying to be more about artists. It really changed in many ways. They tried to do something different every season, and sometimes it changed in real time, the day of the show. They always tried to improve it.

MARI: So now you think that there is more of a balance between being a good singer and looking good?

DH: I don’t know about that. I just know that when the show began, people used to always choose a Whitney Houston or a Celine Dion song….

MARI: More of a pop sensation type of approach.

DH: Exactly. In terms of balance, people who are a bit more rounded, who just sit down with their guitar and sing, can finally stand a chance lately compared to the usual girl with long hair who sings “I Will Always Love You.” It is a good thing.

MARI: Do you think that Simon, who was one of the most controversial judges, was always right?

DH: No, I don’t. He was always wrong in terms of predicting who the winner was. However, he has such a strong personality that he attracts people. There is no doubt about the fact that Simon knows about the music business. He was always great in articulating what had just happened during a performance. He was one of the stars of the show and one of the reasons to watch it.

MARI: Do you think that the new judges will not attract as many TV viewers as he did?

DH: Well the show has been aired for ten years. It has been [on air] a long time, and it will survive for much longer because the audience loves music. I don’t know if they have the right personality. We will see….

MARI: Will you be working on this upcoming season of the show?

DH: No, I resigned because I don’t have time to do it anymore. I am on The Tonight Show now. Even if I teach, I am really a singer. When I was on American Idol I was coaching for half of the year, and there was not much time left for my singing. So now I am finally singing all the time, and that is what I really do.

MARI: Was there anybody on Idol who just did not understand how to improve, no matter what you did?

DH: There were a couple of people like that. However, I can pretty much work with anybody. Idol is almost an impossible scenario to be in; some people come to the show with a bad habit, and if they have enough time to fix it, they eventually will. Other ones, by the time they figure it out, they are already gone.

MARI: Do you have an advice for somebody who is just starting a singing career? Should they be as humble and dedicated as Michael was?

DH: The single best piece of advice is to take three singers that you know, and learn ten songs from them in totally different styles, and learn one song a week in thirty weeks. Then go through the same process in the next thirty weeks. You cannot measure the amount of knowledge you are gaining from those songs, because you can teach and discuss technique, but the only way to learn how to sing is to sing.

Dorian Holley
Listen to his song, titled "Not Gonna Fall"

squaresMari Spiezia-Nobre

Born in the beautiful city of Naples, Italy, Mari Spiezia-Nobre has been singing jazz and pop live since the age of 15, and is one of the few singers who can sing in five languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. Known for her versatility and stage presence, Mari has been performing with her jazz band "E-Motion" and her Brazilian band "Nobresil" (in Brazil) throughout the United States. She has also performed in different countries with well-known musicians in the Latin Jazz world, as both a solo and back-up singer on CDs and in live performances. To sample Mari's music, download this excerpt of the song "Voce Abousou," a tribute to the Brazilian popular music of Antonio Carlos and Jocafi. "Voce Abousou" is one of the songs on on the soon-to-be-released "Nobresil" CD, arranged by Grammy-nominated musician and arranger Jovino Santo Netos. Fans can access "Nobresil" online at CDBABY. Mari is currently an Honors student at WLAC, where she enjoys taking classes that allow her to indulge in her love of music and literature.