1983, Borderline, Burning Up, I Know It, Lucky Star, Madonna, Physical Attraction, Reggie Lucas, The First Album, Think of Me
Reginald Grant Lucas was born in Queens, New York in 1953, the son of a doctor and a teacher. “Although no one in the family was a musician or singer,” he recalled, “music was an important and natural part of our lives.” He began taking piano lessons aged six, and was given an electric guitar for his eleventh birthday. Enthralled by the “music explosion” coming from Motown and England in the Early 1960s, it was “the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
New York’s vibrant live music scene was another inspiration, and at fifteen Reggie began playing guitar in clubs and bars. Two years later, he went on the road with Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul (best-known for his 1972 hit, ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’) At nineteen, Reggie joined jazz great Miles Davis’ band, contributing to albums such as Get Up With It (1974), Agharta (1975), and Pangaea (1976.) He began a long association with percussionist James Mtume, writing ‘The Closer I Get to You’ for Roberta Flack. She recorded the song as a duet with Donny Hathaway, and the single reached second place in the Billboard pop charts in 1977.
Reggie and Mtume formed a slick production team, making four albums with disco diva Stephanie Mills, whose 1981 hit ‘I Never Knew Love Like This Before’ earned them a Grammy. In 1978, Reggie recorded an instrumental album, Survival Themes. He was also a member of Sunfire, who had a hit with ‘Young, Free and Single’ in 1982. A year later, his partnership with Mtume ended. Mtume started his own band and had another smash hit with ‘Juicy Fruit’, while Reggie focused mainly on production.
“When Warner Brothers called me about working with Madonna, I was the big score,” Lucas told Rolling Stone on the thirtieth anniversary of her debut album, Madonna (1983). “It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but I was an established professional and she was a nobody. I met with her at a tiny little apartment she had in the Lower East Side. I thought she was vivacious and sexy and interesting, and had a lot of energy.”
That tiny apartment actually belonged to her artist boyfriend Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was in Paris. Basquiat (like Madonna) was then little-known outside the New York scene. By the time Reggie started work on the album, the twenty-four-year-old starlet had enjoyed some minor success with her first single, ‘Everybody’. Her music was a hybrid of New Wave and R&B, which was thought unusual at the time, and so Sire Records – a subsidiary of Warner’s – were promoting her mainly on black radio.
“Most of the people around Madonna at the corporate level did not get her and for the most part did not like her,” Lucas said. “You could see them recoil from her bohemianism. Everybody thought she was crazy and gross … She wasn’t the weirdest person I’d ever met, you know? I’d worked with Sun Ra!” Conversely, the label’s disinterest allowed Madonna and Reggie more creative freedom: “There was no committee rendering judgment from on high, because she was brand new and frankly nobody cared about her that much.”
As well as ‘Everybody’, Madonna had already written ‘Lucky Star’ before Lucas got involved. “If you heard the original demo for ‘Lucky Star’ and you heard what it came out like, they’re the same song, but barely,” Reggie told The Atlantic. “We really put a lot of creative energy into that one and it came out beautifully.”
“We had this really fun guitar thing on ‘Lucky Star,’ and then she had a meltdown about guitarists,” he explained. “She related an experience where a rock guitarist she was sharing the stage with turned up his guitar, and upstaged her with volume. So we never completed that version.”
“’Physical Attraction’ and ‘Borderline’ were done specifically during the production process and for her,” he added. “They weren’t demo songs that I was shopping around.” He produced three more of Madonna’s compositions, ‘I Know It’, ‘Think Of Me’, and ‘Burning Up.’ “She’s a pretty good improviser, on the tags – you know, the ends of the records – and on ‘Burning Up’ when she’s like ‘I’m burning up, Unh! Unh! Unh!’ me and the engineer were like ‘This is great, man!’ So we’re just like, “Madonna, do it one more time!’”
“Madonna was wilder in terms of her look and image; I don’t know if her music was that much wilder than anyone else back then,” he said. “I think her music was sexually freer and it predicted what was going to happen in the future. She was definitely an innovator when it became to being more suggestive, which was pretty cool. I thought it was great.”
“That was the first record that I ever recorded where I used a drum machine,” he recalled. “It was one of the big transitions for me. We used Moog and Arp synthesizers, and that was relatively new technology back then. It gave the music a new sound … And she stuck with it for a long time.”
As work progressed, Madonna became a hot property. “I dared to believe this was going to be huge beyond belief, the biggest thing I’d ever had, after I heard ‘Borderline’,” said Sire boss Seymour Stein. DJ John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez produced another track, ‘Holiday’. Madonna began to feel that Reggie’s smooth, sophisticated sound didn’t quite fit her downtown aesthetic, and she asked Benitez to remix ‘Lucky Star’, ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Physical Attraction.’
“In Madonna’s ascent to fame and fortune, there’s been a pretty vicious competition for credit in being involved,” Lucas reflected. She would choose Reggie’s friend Nile Rodgers to produce her next album, moving further into the pop mainstream as a global superstar. She returned to an edgier sound with Erotica (1992), and the R&B-influenced Bedtime Stories (1994). Although dissatisfied with her first album, in recent years she has embraced it, even using it as a template for Hard Candy (2008). You can also hear its echo in Rebel Heart (2015), but her recent ventures into modern hip-hop lack the sensuous flow of that joyful debut.
Madonna, or The First Album as it was later retitled, is now considered one of the most important albums of the 1980s. “Well, I don’t know,” Lucas said. “I think everybody involved in the arts has a tendency to take themselves a little bit too seriously. I made a great record, and a lot of people liked it … I don’t think it changed the nature of life in America or anything like that.”
In 1986, Reggie founded the Quantum Sound studio in Jersey City. He continued to produce albums, including Randy Crawford’s Abstracted Emotions, featuring one of her most famous songs, ‘Almaz.’ He was married with two children, and taught music at university in later years. On May 19, 2018, his daughter Lisa Lucas announced that Reggie had died, aged sixty-five. “After a long and arduous struggle with his physical heart (his emotional one was perfect) he was called home,” Lisa wrote of her father. “I wish he’d had more time, I wish we’d all had more time with him, but he left this world absolutely covered in love, with his hands held and his family beside him. I’m glad he’s at peace now.”
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