Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part I. 2009
MICHAEL’S LONG RECORDING CAREER AFFORDS us a unique opportunity to listen to a beautiful human voice as it evolves from childhood to middle age. There are gospel recordings of Aretha Franklin at twelve from a Detroit church. There are homemade childhood tapes scattered around from artists as diverse as Kurt Cobain and Beyoncé. But Michael was recorded professionally from age eight to fifty, enabling us to hear a great vocal artist refine his craft, using new technology and his evolving understanding of vocal technique, and adapting to the changes wrought by age.
That’s why it’s fascinating to listen to the pre-Motown records the Jackson 5 made in 1966 for the little Gary, Indiana-based Steeltown Records. Steeltown was owned by Gordon Keith, a local steelworker Michael always called Mr. Keith. The band on these recordings is decidedly loose. Apparently, the rhythm section was the Jackson 5 paired with older horn players and backing vocalists. Compared to the crispness of Motown or Stax records circa 1968, which were as tight as a sailor’s knot, the four sides of the early Jackson 5 are not exciting and are certainly not well played.
MICHAEL’S LEAD VOCAL ON “BIG BOY” is his most engaging of these early performances. The lyric is the tale of a young boy asserting his maturity to a skeptical woman, and Michael’s vocal approach is more adult than in his early Motown recordings. “Big Boy” is a very traditional sounding soul record, and the eight-year-old singer is mimicking older singers such as Ronnie Isley or Marvin Gaye, while playing down his natural kiddie exuberance. The talent is there but not the excitement that would soon become his trademark, because on this record a boy is imitating a man, a ploy designed to charm Negro adults. This kind of imitation was quite popular at house parties of my childhood. The opening skit of Eddie Murphy’s Robert Townsend-directed Raw concert film is a bit with a young Murphy entertaining a room of his parents’ friends. I was known for my Jackie Wilson split, the singer’s signature dance move, where the ex-Golden Glove boxer would slide his legs out to the sides while his torso dropped to the floor. When I did this right, I could usually stay up a little later, sneak a shot of rum and coke, and maybe get a quarter from an impressed houseguest. Other kids I knew could shimmy and shake like James Brown or imitate the Temptations’ choreography.
Such parodies by kids of adult entertainers were staples of amateur nights all over the country. So in that respect neither the Jackson 5’s stage show nor Michael’s attempted vocal ventriloquism was remarkable at the time. What the Jacksons needed, and what Steeltown couldn’t deliver, was a vision of what could be instead of a rehash of soul clichés. With a singer as young as Michael (or Jermaine for that matter), the challenge was not to give the audience what it already had, but to find a youthful approach that, yes, exploited the singer’s age while continuing to entertain adults. What these records lacked, technical limitations aside, was a point of view.
Now point of view was what Motown specialized in. It crafted songs to define a singer’s persona as well as, and usually better than, any musical institution in history. In fact, the struggle within the company over that point of view defined the Jackson 5’s first two years with Motown. The Motowner who first found and believed in Joe Jackson’s boys was a B list singer-bandleader named Bobby Taylor, who, with his band, the Vancouvers (one of the more curious names for an R&B aggregation ever), had performed on shows with the group a number of times on the chitlin’ circuit.
The Vancouvers, an integrated band that included future stoner comedian Tommy Chong, had signed with Motown in 1966 and was considered a major vocal talent by many around the company, including Marvin Gaye. Bobby and the Vancouvers would have a hit in 1968 with “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” a song about an interracial love affair, very much in keeping with Taylor’s countercultural credentials as a grad of UC-Berkeley.
Unfortunately, Bobby’s attitude was, in a very 1960s way, not very respectful of authority, a trait that didn’t take you far within the very bureaucratic Motown structure. So even though Bobby would not become a star himself, the man knew great talent when he heard it. “In the summer of 1968,” he told writer David Ritz,
we were playing the Regal on the same bill as Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, and Little Miss Soul. The Jackson 5 opened the show. They had won the amateur contest a number of times, which meant they were now playing for pay. Michael was at the height of his James Brown thing. I mean he had James Brown down—the spin, the moves, the mike action, the whole bit. It was weird and wonderful to see this little kid singing like a sexy man. Michael would do “Cold Sweat” and “I Got the Feeling” with feelings you can’t fake. His brothers were steppin’ behind him, and the whole thing was dynamite. I saw enough. I knew they were ripe, so I said to Joe “I’m taking y’all to Detroit.”
At his own expense Bobby brought the boys and Joe to Detroit in the summer of 1968, a year after the riots that permanently scarred Motor City. He put them up at his place, where he worked with them on harmonies and enunciation. The leap from raw live performance to studio professionalism can be a big one, and Taylor, as much as anyone, provided Michael and his brothers with that initial education.
Joe had succeeded on the club level by cultivating Michael’s natural soul-singing instincts. Eventually, Michael would add other singing styles to his bag of vocal tricks, but at the age of nine he was deep into the tradition, a gift that Taylor saw clearly. In recording the Jackson 5’s initial Motown records, he “never thought about pop. Crossover was some marketing concept that didn’t interest me at all. This boy, this little Michael Jackson, could blow. He had the goods. As a singer, he was so straight-ahead black that I knew he’d take his place alongside Ray Charles. In Michael, I had me a soul singer.”
In the West Grand Boulevard studios, Taylor cut tracks with the Funk Brothers, superb Motown session musicians, but laid down only scratch vocals. With the Jacksons’ return to school in Gary imminent, he didn’t want to rush the real recording process. So the vocals that you hear on the Taylor-produced soul sessions, recordings that weren’t widely available until a 1995 four-CD set, were primarily recorded in January and February 1970 after the Jacksons moved from Gary to Los Angeles.
But in these initial Los Angeles sessions, Taylor was very much in charge and took Michael and his brothers on a very soulful journey, cutting thirty-plus tracks with many of the session cats who would dominate the West Coast R&B scene in the 1970s: guitarist Wah Wah Watson, percussionist Eddie “Bongo” Brown, and Detroit refugees such as drummer Uriel Jones and guitarist Jack Ashford. A cover of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” features Michael hitting and stretching notes with a syncopation that matches the track’s razor-sharp cymbal sound. Not surprisingly, a hip-hop- favored remix of this track, featuring Michael’s vocals with contemporary instrumentation, is a club favorite today; his young voice sits as comfortably in the groove’s pocket as it would on “Rock with You.”
The Jackson 5 rendition of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” on which Michael shares vocals with Jermaine, is performed at a slower tempo than the original, and Michael’s vocals are bluesier than Levi Stubbs’s more operatic interpretation. The stunner of these tracks is a cover of Ray Charles’s “A Fool for You.” Charles wrote and recorded this early soul classic three years before Michael was born, yet Michael sings it with an emotional maturity that seems impossible for someone who was eleven at the time. It’s absolutely as good a Michael Jackson performance as any in his career.
Unfortunately for Taylor, Berry Gordy’s commercial instincts allowed him to see behind the brilliance of one performance and take in the big picture. “BG [Berry Gordy] accused me of cutting tunes that were old fashioned,” Taylor recalled. “But to me they were classics. I wanted to feed Michael’s soul.” Ultimately, Gordy removed Taylor as the Jackson 5’s producer. Of the many tracks he produced with the group, a gorgeous cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin’ You,” which is far superior to the original, was the only one to get noticed during the initial wave of Jackson-mania. It was the B side of “I Want You Back,” the first of the Jackson 5’s number one singles, and the contrast between the two performances reflected Gordy’s amazing pop instincts and the versatility of tender young Michael’s instrument. Whereas the folks at Steeltown, Joe, and Bobby Taylor had all seen Michael’s voice as a vehicle for a kid to sing as an adult, Gordy saw that the real money was in having a kid with adult skills sing as a kid.
Replacing Taylor as the Jackson 5’s in-studio point person was a very unlikely character named Deke Richards, a white guitarist/songwriter in his midtwenties and the son of a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d been seduced by Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and picked up guitar soon after. At fourteen he wrote a song with the prophetic title “Bubblegum.” The teenage Richards formed his own band, Deke and the Deacons, which played R&B hits in Los Angeles and around the valley. The group broke up in 1965, and the twenty-one-year old musician wound up backing a white female singer named Debbie Dean. She’d been the first white artist signed to Motown back in 1961, and despite minimal sales success, she had remained in the Motown orbit.
Dean hustled up a meeting with Gordy at the Century Plaza Hotel with Richards in tow. The mogul liked what he heard and took them on as a songwriting team. Over the next few years, as Gordy spent increasing amounts of time in LA, Richards’s songwriting skills and amiable demeanor landed him in Gordy’s good graces.
In 1968 Richards proved to be the right man in the right place. The legendary H-D-H team (Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland) that had crafted huge pop hits for the Supremes and the Four Tops, and who would have been naturals to mentor the Jackson 5, sued the company for back royalties and left to start a label. Initially, Gordy organized an ad hoc team of writer-producers to keep the Supremes hits coming. Along with Richards, LA-based Frank Wilson and Motown vets Pam Sawyer, R. Dean Taylor, and Hank Cosby (who’d done a lot of work with Stevie Wonder) were brought together at Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel to craft some post-H-D-H material. Out of this loose ensemble, dubbed the Clan, came “Love Child,” the tale of an inner-city girl and the pressures in her life, which was unusually realistic for Motown. But the Clan was a stopgap measure, not a long-term solution. Lacking cohesion and any loyalty to each other, the Clan dissolved in disputes over credits and royalties.
In the aftermath, Richards went back to LA still excited about the idea of collaborative songwriting and determined to build his own team. With Gordy’s blessing, Richards recruited two gifted college-trained musicians, keyboardists Freddie Perrin and Fonce Mizell. Because Perrin and Mizell were already friends and used to collaborating, they were open to giving the team concept a try.
Initially, the trio was working with Gladys Knight and the Pips and came up with a track called “I Want to Be Free.” How this song evolved into “I Want You Back” is the subject of several slightly different stories. Richards has told interviewers that when they played the tune for Gordy, he suggested they adapt it for “the boys” by giving it a Frankie Lymon feel, making the lyric about a guy who loses his girl.
Gordy has written that he had the hook “Oh baby, give me one more chance” in his head for weeks before passing it along to the young trio for further development, not mentioning the Knight connection. Either way, the Lymon reference is the real key, because the resulting lyric harks back to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” in that both records are simultaneously upbeat and plaintive, fun and vaguely melancholy, a balance that somehow has mass appeal. Years ago I wrote of “I Want You Back”: “The resulting record was an explosive burst of youthful enthusiasm backed by immaculate, dynamic production and a clever lyric to which Berry had clearly contributed his expertise. Once again Berry had demonstrated his mastery of the increasingly anachronistic three minute single.”
Poised at a moment when black music was about to expand its artistic boundaries, when singles would go from three minutes to four and five, when albums would replace singles as the creative and financial centerpiece of black pop music, the Jackson 5’s breakthrough records were throwbacks to Motown’s mid-1960s formula, this time infused with youthful vitality. These records were new and old at the same time, part throwbacks to the songs Gordy wrote for Jackie Wilson in the 1950s, yet deeply influenced by the late 1960s funky pop as played by Sly and the Family Stone.
With Berry Gordy on board as one-quarter of the entity known as the Corporation, the team spent $10,000 on the single, more than three times the cost of the average Motown recording in 1969. Much of that money was spent perfecting the vocals of Michael and his brothers. Unlike Taylor’s more spontaneous sounding tracks, “I Want You Back,” as well as “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and the other early up-tempo Corporation productions, Michael’s every line was scrutinized for pronunciation and phonetics. From wonderful adlibs (“Just look over your shoulder honey”) to the studied absence of the churchy moans that delighted Taylor, the records convey beautifully manufactured joy.
The three hits are sung fast and furious, as if a starter pistol has gone off with the first note and three minutes ahead is the finish line. Labeled “bubblegum soul” by fans and detractors alike, the term captures the essence of teen appeal soul, so full of craftsmanship and spirit that the tunes would become templates for groups from the Osmonds to New Edition to New Kids on the Block and many more.
Motown’s production-line philosophy had always been that if a particular style worked, you keep recording in that style until consumer exhaustion set in. So subsequent Jackson 5 up-tempo tracks (“Goin’ Back to Indiana,” “Mama’s Pearl,” “Sugar Daddy”) all contained strands of the DNA of “Want” in rhythm arrangement, melody, and the Jackson 5’s vocals. This lesson wouldn’t be lost on young Michael, who saw that in repetition of vocal tics, attention to the meticulous details of tight harmony, and the stamina to manufacture emotion through numerous takes was the key to record sales.
The other crucial lesson Michael learned in the school of Motown, one that he’d employ often in his mature recordings a decade later, was the right vocal approach to a pop ballad. Unlike an R&B love song, wherein a singer has free reign to sing in and around the melody, a pop stylist works within the melody, only really cutting loose toward the last third of the song. Good lyrics help, but a memorable, well-structured melody with a tasty bridge allows a smart singer to elevate everything from a generic lyric to a plain old silly love song.
Michael’s education in the pop ballad came not from the Corporation but from Hal Davis, who’d opened Motown’s Los Angeles office and waited patiently for the company’s operations to shift west. Eventually, Davis would become Motown’s most reliable staff producer-writer of the 1970s, equally adept at pop songs and disco tracks. At the time, he was anxious to work with the Jackson boys, knowing that they were a priority for the company.
Instead of trying to compete with the Corporation with up-tempo tracks, Davis, along with several collaborators, including the very gifted Willie Hutch, went in a different direction. Davis, who in a few years would guide Diana Ross through the slow simmer and release of the epic “Love Hangover,” was a master of modulating and slowly intensifying a vocal performance. As a producer, the Jacksons described him as a stern taskmaster and a teacher; in Michael, he’d find an A-plus student.
Michael’s vocal on “I’ll Be There” is sweetly angelic, the voice of a choirboy. In a way, the song is a hymn. The lyric, credited to Hutch, Davis, Gordy, and arranger Bob West, is about reassurance in a time of trouble. The song calls for bringing “salvation back,” an obvious religious reference. But the rest of the lyric is vague enough that it could be God speaking to his believers, a man singing to a woman, or, of course, a small boy talking to his parents.
With a touch of echo effect on his voice, Michael sounds like a ringing bell when balanced against Jermaine’s midrange voice and choral backing vocals that sound like very soulful Catholic school boys. Michael colors within the lines of the melody until the ending’s famously calculated adlib (“Just look over your shoulder honey”). This is a very sculptured performance, and it remains so resonant that in 2009, nearly three decades after the song’s release, All-State insurance used an a cappella version, highlighting Michael’s affecting schoolboy vocal in a series of TV commercials.
“I’ll Be There” is the template for the piercingly emotive pop balladeer Michael would become. You can trace a direct line from this 1970 performance to “She’s Out of My Life” to “Human Nature” to “You Are Not Alone,” as impressive a catalog of controlled, melody-enhancing performances as exists in American music.
“Maybe Tomorrow” is my favorite Michael Jackson vocal of the early 1970s. Where “I’ll Be There” is polished pop, “Maybe Tomorrow” is the kind of sweet soul record Thom Bell was making in Philadelphia with the Delfonics or Stylistics, with its brightly tuned guitars, agile strings, and piano-based hooks. The difference is that Bell’s productions usually featured a falsetto lead. In contrast on “Maybe Tomorrow” Michael begins by singing the opening verses in his lower range at a slow pace, raising his voice briefly with the ascending melody, and then settling back down.
As the arrangement swells midway through, Michael rises up in his register again and never returns to that original approach. Instead, he sings higher and picks up his pace as tambourines, piano, and strings become more active. By the song’s last third, Michael is loose, stretching out words, getting gospel gritty, and bouncing off Jermaine’s more strained interjections.
“Maybe Tomorrow,” a song of deep romantic yearning, was an instant ghetto classic, a record that sounded better to me at a red light project house party than on the radio, a record to slow dance to with the sexiest girl in the room. In the 1990s, rapper Ghostface Killah and producer Rza used it as the foundation for “All That I Got Is You,” a tale of melancholy hopefulness that maintained the tone of the original while making it modern. Michael Jackson and Ghostface Killah—connected by sampling and yearning.