In 1989, Quincy Jones had already amassed one of the most enviable discographies in pop history, playing, writing, arranging, or producing for Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore, The Brothers Johnson, George Benson, Patti Austin, and Michael Jackson.
But the legendary polymath still had more to do — Jones set out to create an album that “represents everything I have worked for after 40 years,” according to The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits. That turned into Back on the Block, which spawned one of the last hits in Jones’ hit-filled career: “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite),” a slow-burning, cross-generational, come-hither posse cut that topped the R&B chart.
Three decades-ish later, “The Secret Garden” is getting an all-star update courtesy of Sisqo (known for his solo hits and time in Dru Hill), Shawn Stockman (Boyz II Men), Raheem DeVaughn, and Omar Wilson. The four singers are careful to stay faithful to Jones’ original arrangement for “The Secret Garden,” keeping the unhurried tempo and gently probing guitars, adding only some extra thunk in the drums and a hint of programmed hi-hats. Arika Kane, Lou Humphrey, and Jasmon Joyner served as producers on the new version of the track.
“The Secret Garden” re-work really heats up during the extended, vamping outro — “If you think I am gonna take care of you/If you think I have got what you need/Show you right” — when the singers start to get competitive, vying to out-ad-lib each other even as they join forces on sticky multi-part harmonies. These four-voice pile-ups are now mostly extinct in R&B’s mainstream; this part could easily last another two minutes.
In a statement, Sisqo says re-doing Jones’ single “was a no-brainer.” On Instagram, Wilson is already calling “The Secret Garden” remake the “biggest R&B record of the year.”
When Jones first thought up “The Secret Garden” more than 30 years ago, he called on some of his favorite writers for help, notably Rod Temperton (Jackson’s “Rock With You,” Benson’s “Give Me the Night”) and Siedah Garrett (Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”).
In The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits, Garrett recalled Jones’ vision for the track: “I want this to be a love song about four men trying to court this woman and each of them bringing a different side of themselves to the party.” Jones borrowed the title from the Nancy Friday book My Secret Garden.
Even with Jones’ all-star team, writing the lyrics proved challenging. “He did want it to represent the feeling of the bedroom,” El Debarge said. “And that was the hardest part, because we had to make it feel that way without using raunchy words. At the same time, we didn’t want to get too philosophical… You have to be real careful how you deliver your message.”
Jones was originally hoping that Stevie Wonder would be one of the four vocalists on “The Secret Garden,” but he couldn’t make it, so James Ingram subbed in. Jones also called White, who hadn’t had a Top Ten hit in over a decade, and personally asked him to contribute. “I heard it, I loved it,” White said in The Billboard Book of Number One R&B Hits. “I called him back, [and] I said, ‘Q, I buy.’”