38. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a singer, dancer and composer from Gary, Indiana. The fifth of nine children, Jackson was a child prodigy, blessed with uncommon, early singing and dancing ability. His father, Joseph Jackson, worked as a U.S. Steel crane operator, but pursued a second career in music — first playing guitar in local bands, and then developing a family musical act. By age five, Michael earned a spot in the group; by the time he was eight the band was winning major talent contests, including the legendary amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The ambitious father was a strict disciplinarian; he trained his sons relentlessly, a regime of rehearsals and performances both locally and on the chitlin’ circuit. The hard work paid off. Gladys Knight saw the Apollo Theater performance, and alerted Motown Records founder Berry Gordy to the Jackson 5 and their fine young singer.

Michael Jackson is ranked third on a list of the best selling recording artists in pop music history.

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The Jackson 5:

Wikipedia Biography of the Jackson 5
Joseph Jackson (b. 1928), manager, patriarch

Michael Jackson (1958-2009), singer, dancer, songwriter
Jermaine Jackson (b. 1954), singer, bass
Sigmund “Jackie” Jackson (b. 1951), singer
Marlon Jackson (b. 1957), singer, dancer
Toriano “Tito” Jackson (b. 1953), singer, guitar
Randy Jackson (b. 1961), singer, musician

A Few Notable Contributors:

Rod Temperton (b. 1947), songwriter, producer, keyboards
Quincy Jones (b. 1933), producer
Greg Phillinganes (b. 1956), keyboards
Steve Porcaro (b. 1957), keyboards, composer
Louis Johnson (b. 1955), bass

The Jackson 5 and The Adolescence Theory

Berry Gordy signed the Jackson 5 in late 1968. By early 1969 they were hard at work at Motown headquarters in Detroit; within months they moved their base of operations to Los Angeles, under the leadership of The Corporation. Starting in December, 1969, they accomplished a unique feat, the first four singles going #1, and they did it in only ten months. All four are great, irresistible pop songs. In these earlier songs, both Michael and Jermaine sing lead parts.

I Want You Back
A.B.C.
The Love You Save
I’ll Be There

There’s a nice connection with another favorite band of mine. The Crusaders’ Wilton Felder plays bass on all four songs.

“The Love You Save” intrigues me. I can’t decide whether it is their best song, or the fourth best. Musically, it’s a bit more complex than the others, and there are passages which soar.

I was eleven when the Jackson 5 reached my neighborhood. A brand new neighborhood after my parents divorced, complete with lots of kids my age, and lots of sports and music. What a great time in my life. Golden days, and the music was so important, it sounded so good.

I have two competing theories about pop music. First, that music reached a creative peak around 1970, a period of great innovation when electrified instruments, plus the breakdown in traditional genre identification, blew the doors of creativity wide open. There’s a competing theory that a person’s core musical interests are formed in adolescence. In my unofficial polling of friends, many are attached to the music of their childhood. Young people tend to have more free time to listen and appreciate music with friends.

I wonder how biased I am. Look at how many acclaimed artists were active in 1970. The Beatles shattered boundaries; albums like Revolver and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band draw upon Indian and psychedelic influences, and use whatever instrument works best. Motown Records, aka Hitsville U.S.A., blurred the line between African-American and mainstream popular music. The Chicago blues mutated into heavy guitar rock by Jimi Hendrix and groups such as Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, while modal jazz piqued the interest of The Allman Brothers. The Latin rhythms popularized by founding fathers like Chano Pozo, Machito, and Tito Puente found their way into the mainstream. James Brown, The Who, The Doors and many others were at or near the top of their game. Popular music reached a final zenith of creativity here, and this era of music is the backbone of my collection.

For a couple of years, The Jackson 5 dominated with their deceptively powerful songs, and Michael Jackson was a shining star, and a lifetime master of the hit song.

The Transition

The Jackson 5 followed with two consecutive #2 hits, “Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”, after which they only had one top 5 hit, 1973’s “Dancing Machine”. The Jacksons matured, Michael’s voice changed, and the band moved to Epic Records after an acrimonious breakup with Motown. The ambitious Jacksons pushed forward, with four new albums of songs between 1976 and 1980. “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” is a standout, but given the strength of my collection, and considering Jackson’s overall contribution, I include four Jacksons songs, and leave it to true fans to fill in the gaps. To me, these songs are less distinctive. I prefer a tight list of songs to remember him by. A crucial detail to remember: during these years, he honed his adult singing style, and started to pursue his solo career in earnest.

It took me many years to figure out that Off The Wall was a great record. The title song “Off The Wall” has been my favorite Michael Jackson song for decades; a real knack for syncopation, and his angelic vocals are those of a special man trying to make a statement. If there’s a flaw in this and many of Jackson’s greatest hits, is the occasional weak lyrical passage. Jackson often chooses contemporary slang to build his stories, and these words can sound dated. In one case, it stuck with me forever:

“So tonight, better leave that nine to five up on the shelf, and just enjoy yourself. Groove, and let the madness in the music get to you, life ain’t so bad at all, when you live it off the wall.”

— Michael Jackson

The King of MTV

Riding high from the success of Off The Wall, but stung by a lack of Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts of Sciences, Jackson redoubled his efforts. Utilizing the new medium of music video, and drawing upon his lifetime of dance choreography, Jackson released Thriller in 1983. Momentum for the album was gradual, but after his iconic dance performance at the Motown 25th Anniversary show in March, 1983, sales exploded. Michael emerges as a bigger star than ever before.

Thriller is a virtual greatest hits compilation, three years of hard work and perfectionism. It’s hard to deny its brilliance. You can still hear guitar riffs pushing songs along, but it’s a last gasp for this type of soul music. A darker vision begins to surface; “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” all have a hint of paranoia. The King of Pop videos are excellent and saturate television, when there were fewer channel choices. Thriller is, by far, the best-selling album of all time, with over 110 million units sold. I didn’t buy the album until years later. In 1983, I bought 45 RPM singles when I could. It was an efficient way of to collect songs. I have about six of the original 45s. Some of them have picture covers, which are really snazzy.

For Michael Jackson, and perhaps him alone, the official videos should be featured:

The next album, 1987’s Bad, has a great title song, features five #1 hits, and sold thirty million units, which deeply disappointed Jackson. The song “Bad” yields my favorite satirical video; Weird Al Yankovic’s super phat video. Of the other four hits, I only have “Man In The Mirror”, adding three #1 hits to the short list of those not included. After Bad, I started losing interest in Jackson’s music. I did purchase Dangerous four years later. Again, immensely popular, but heading deeper into darkness, and further from the happy, beautiful music of his prime.

Asperger’s Syndrome

There is speculation that Jackson was an “aspie”, a mildly autistic savant. I agree. Recently, I watched a Woody Allen documentary, part of the American Masters series on public broadcasting. After listening to Allen’s mother describe how hard it was to care for such an energetic child, I looked up a list of famous people suspected of being “aspies”, and found both Woody Allen and Michael Jackson mentioned.

“Michael Jackson certainly shows signs of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). His unusual behaviour has often been blamed on his upbringing, however his siblings are relatively normal, with a similar upbringing, so I do not feel this is the cause. Michael is often seen as shy, and has difficulty relating to many people. His friends are a few people with whom he has common interests, especially the background of being a child star. He mostly seems to be able to relate to children, however, perhaps reflecting the social immaturity which may be seen in Asperger’s. Regardless of maturity level, people with Asperger’s seem to be more comfortable with those older or younger than their peer group. This has never been confirmed but many sources feel there was a possiblity he might of had Asperger Syndrome.”

Famous People With Asperger’s Syndrome

Jackson’s precocious talent and troubled life are indicative. And though these men handled it much differently, a number of artists with seemingly autistic traits are profiled in the blog, among them Artie Shaw, Bob Dylan and David Byrne.

A Difficult Life

My dilemma is how to mention his dysfunctional personal life. There are things he did that I can’t condone. I don’t like that he was such a perfectionist, and wished he had tried more songs, more albums, and taken more chances. Most of my favorite artists write songs and then try them a few times, with real musicians. If it’s good enough, fine. Move forward, like Van Morrison.

He faced some brand of alienation his entire life, and hundreds, sometimes thousands depended on him for their livelihood. A hard burden to bear.

At some level he took his fame and greatness too seriously, more important than simply being a great rock star. He was intensely competitive; a tough kid from a very tough family, and ultimately, he couldn’t accept anything resembling failure. By the end he was sick and artistically paralyzed, as hard as he tried. But no matter how great you are Michael, everybody has a career, and yours was one of the best.

Song Notes:

1. Over the years, Motown released various mixes of their hit songs. I listened to a few versions of the great Jackson 5 songs, looking for the best sound. The stereo version of “The Love You Save”, “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I Want You Back” are found on 20th Century Masters: The Millenium Collection. But the original mono mixes of “A.B.C.” and “I’ll Be There” leap from the grooves of the original Motown box set Hitsville USA, The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971. Well worth getting the best version here. In addition, there are nice alternate versions of “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I’ll Be There” on a recent release called Stripped Mixes.

2. Keyboard player Rod Temperton was instrumental to the success of Off The Wall. He was recruited after his band Heat Wave achieved success with “Always And Forever” and “Boogie Nights”.

3. I wrote a post about Michael Jackson shortly after he died. The tone is heartfelt, but sadder and angrier.

Link to Michael Jackson Post from June, 2009

4. “Rock With You” may be the prettiest piece of rock music ever made.

Jackson 5 Songs:

I Want You Back, Jackson 5 ✭✭✭✭
ABC, Jackson 5 ✭✭✭✭
The Love You Save, Jackson 5 ✭✭✭✭
I’ll Be There, Jackson 5 ✭✭✭✭

I’ll Be There (Alt), Jackson 5 ✭✭
Never Can Say Goodbye, Jackson 5 ✭✭

Never Can Say Goodbye (Alt), Jackson 5
Dancing Machine, Jackson 5

The Jacksons Songs:

Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground), The Jacksons ✭✭✭

Enjoy Yourself, The Jacksons
This Place Hotel, The Jacksons
Blame It On The Boogie, The Jacksons

Michael Jackson Songs:

Off The Wall, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭✭✭

Beat It, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭✭
Rock With You, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭✭

Bad, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭
Billie Jean, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭
Human Nature, Michael Jackson ✭✭✭
The Girl Is Mine, Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney ✭✭✭

P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), Michael Jackson ✭✭
Man In The Mirror, Michael Jackson ✭✭
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough (Alt), Michael Jackson ✭✭
I Can’t Help It, Michael Jackson ✭✭

Workin’ Day And Night, Michael Jackson
Give In To Me, Michael Jackson
Girlfriend, Michael Jackson
Say, Say, Say, Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson
Childhood, Michael Jackson
She’s Out Of My Life, Michael Jackson
Got To Be There, Michael Jackson
Heal The World, Michael Jackson

Related Songs:

O.P.P., Naughty By Nature ✭✭✭

Somebody’s Watching You, Rockwell

That’s The Way Love Goes, Janet Jackson ✭✭✭
When I Think Of You, Janet Jackson ✭✭

Boogie Nights, Heat Wave ✭✭
Always And Forever, Heat Wave ✭✭✭

Fat, “Weird” Al Yankovic ✭✭✭
Eat It, “Weird” Al Yankovic

Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it
No one wants to be defeated
Showin’ how funky and strong is your fight
It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right

— Michael Jackson

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