NEW YORK, NEW YORK - 2009 - Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George

Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part I. 2009


THE FIRST REHEARSAL FOR THE MOVIE VERSION of the all-black musical The Wiz was in October 1977. This was his first work on a major creative project without his family’s involvement and his first extended stay in the Big Apple (he was there on and off well into spring 1978). “During this period of my life, I was searching, both consciously and unconsciously,” Michael would later write. “I was feeling some stress and anxiety about what I wanted to do with my life now that was I an adult. I was analyzing my options and preparing to make decisions that could have a lot of repercussions.”

The Wiz marked Michael’s first collaboration with Quincy Jones, who supervised the score to what was to become a big budget, ill-fated, and critically maligned project. Much was said later by both men about their first meeting on set when Quincy helped Michael correctly pronounce the name of the Greek philosopher Socrates. But aside from this relationship, another significant influence on Michael’s musical and emotional development during this time was New York City it self.

The many months he spent acting in The Wiz placed him in the Big Apple at the height of the disco era, a time when black, white, gay, and Latin dance clubs filled my hometown. With Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, or many of the incredible company of dancers who worked on The Wiz, Michael was a regular at Studio 54 (as journalist Anthony Haden Guest mentioned in his history of the club, The Last Party).

I was in college at the time The Wiz was shooting around town, and I was working as a writer for the black weekly the Amsterdam News. I’d hear regular reports, from girls clocking this very eligible bachelor’s moves, of Michael being seen out at this or that club. He was staying on posh Sutton Place, an isolated street overlooking the East River and a short drive over the 59th Street Bridge to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where The Wiz was being shot. Sutton Place was also close to the Midtown hot spots he’d visit on days off.

Studio 54 was a study in hedonism, with bare-chested pretty-boy barbacks and willowy women in high platform shoes cruising the room, anxiously looking for drugs and sexual hookups. The upper balcony of the converted old vaudeville hall didn’t have any seats, but it did have flat surfaces where all manner of sexual activity took place. This was also true of the unisex restrooms on the mezzanine.

Even though there is no record of Michael Jackson indulging in drugs or sex at Studio 54, he was definitely witness to New York disco culture at the height of its glittery glory. Living in New York during that period, no matter how long his workdays or how sheltered his suite, Michael could not have ignored the city’s voracious nightlife as well as the stark contrast between poverty and the city’s party life.

You can find pictures online of Michael, shirt open to mid-chest, Afro still intact, and shiny disco belt around his slim waist, snapping his fingers as three tall, tan, and terrific-looking black women in iridescent hot pants surround him—all four singing happily along to a song—maybe one of his. You’ll see Michael was also photographed with Studio 54’s crazed co-owner Steve Rubell and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. You’ll see Michael at the center of a posed photo, surrounded by the gay disco act the Village People and actresses Valerie Perrine and Jane Fonda. Among sexy women, campy gay singers, and rock stars, Michael lived the nightlife of a young celebrity, but without the sex and drugs so often associated with that scene.

At least that’s the official story. Any youthful first-time sexual experiences during this period of Michael’s life would probably have happened when he worked with hundreds of dancers on The Wiz set and hung out at NYC clubs. And when I say experimentation, I do not mean he had intercourse. A friend who socialized with Michael later in his life always thought of him as a voyeur of adult sexual play—that he’d watch people make out or go further, enjoy the spectacle, maybe giggle, but not participate, holding onto his Virgo sense of eternal innocence. Moving through Studio 54 or Elaine’s or Leviticus or the Paradise Garage—legendary Uptown, black, and gay discos of the 1970s—he could easily have gotten a sexual education without taking off a stitch of clothing.

THE UNIQUE FUSION OF SOUND and sensibilities that was New York’s soundtrack in the late 1970s was defined by radio station WBLS and its program director/superstar DJ, Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker. Deep voiced, ridiculously cool, and decidedly stylish, Crocker was also the Big Apple’s leading black concert promoter, which meant he decided what got played on New York’s number one music station and he profited when those same acts performed at one of the city’s major concert venues. It gave Crocker incredible power in New York and in the industry.

Michael was very familiar with Crocker because he held sway over which of Michael’s records got played in the nation’s biggest record-buying market. Michael may have gone to Studio 54 when he was in town, but Crocker was one of the glam crowd folks who made it hot. Crocker, in fact, was a presence at every one of the city’s important discos.

“Instead of waiting for the promotion men to come to him to pitch records,” wrote Peter Shapiro in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco,

Crocker went out on the disco circuit—frequenting places like the aspiration black disco Leviticus at 45 West 33rd Street, Studio 54 and, most famously, the Paradise Garage—to discover his own, and the playlist changed accordingly. Crocker’s mix of music was elegant, suave, sophisticated and, most important, color-blind. Crocker played off the wall (for black radio) stuff like Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and long album cuts as well as singles.

I wasn’t always a fan of Crocker’s eclecticism given that he decided that the funkiest bands of the era (Cameo, Bar-Kays, Con Funk Shun) didn’t blend well with his disco mix. Nevertheless, he opened up black audiences to Euro-disco, breaking Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” and the wonderful alternative dance band Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, among many. Crocker’s vision dominated New York in the late 1970s, and his slogan announced, “If I’m not on your radio, your radio isn’t on.” During the time Michael was shooting The Wiz, this was absolutely true.

OF COURSE, THE IMPACT OF DISCO was not confined to the New York hip; it was everywhere: in movie theaters and on uncool Top 40 AM stations. And in these venues, the Bee Gees ruled. Once a Beatles-inspired harmony group, the brothers Gibb (Maurice, Robin, and Barry) had first been seduced by disco on their 1975 album, Main Course, produced by R&B veteran Arif Mardin. Buoyed by hits such as “Nights on Broadway,” the Bee Gees went in a new direction, emphasizing falsettos in both backing and lead vocals. In 1978, the Gibb brothers contributed several new songs to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which also contained dance gems by the Trammps (“Disco Inferno”), Tarvares (“More Than a Woman”), and KC and the Sunshine Band (“Boogie Shoes”).

But it was “Stayin’ Alive,” in which an anxious New Yorker sings of big-city survival in high-pitched multipart harmony over a slinky, smooth beat, that dominated pop culture, while irritating lots of R&B professionals who felt that black groups were already making this kind of record and were being ignored. From a musical point of view, black music vets had a legit gripe. But as a pop cultural event, Saturday Night Fever transcended the boundaries of race. It was a true audio/visual event, a pop cultural explosion, ignited by John Travolta’s scruffy charisma and dirty dancing elegance. His white suit and black shirt, beautifully framed by director John Badham’s camera, added a visual dimension to the Bee Gees’ music that the painfully uninteresting band could not. (The group’s video for “Stayin’ Alive,” shot in a railyard, was so bad it was funny.)

Saturday Night Fever went on to sell 30 million albums and cassettes, making it the biggest soundtrack album of all time until Whitney Houston’s 1992 soundtrack to The Bodyguard unseated it. Considering the elements that made the album a phenomenon—high tenor harmonies, nightlife lyrics, cutting-edge dance moves, iconic clothing—Michael Jackson must have been paying attention.

After production on The Wiz wrapped, Michael returned to Los Angeles. He was twenty years old and armed with a slew of musical ideas, some he’d been harboring for years and others inspired by the newest trends in dance music. Unlike many West Coast music folks, who were slow or resistant to disco, Michael had seen it, heard it, and saw the future—his future.