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

Part I. 2009

BLACK HOLLYWOOD

IT’S THE EARLY 1980S, AND I AM IN THE OFFICES OF Joe Jackson’s management company, located in the Motown building at 6255 Sunset Boulevard, a holdover from the days when the Jackson family functioned as a subsidiary of Berry Gordy’s legendary enterprise. Jackson-mania is well under way, and Joe, though no longer Michael’s day-to-day manager, still has access to his most famous son.

I’m with Joe to talk about a few topics, including the careers of his daughters Janet and LaToya. Janet, signed to A&M Records, is not yet a major pop star, and LaToya, who would release an album on PolyGram, hadn’t yet made a spectacle of herself or married poorly. Joe is a formidable figure with a mane of hair around his head that, along with his piercing, hooded eyes, suggests that Joe is part man, part lion king, a perception encouraged by the lion statuette sitting on his desk.

At some point in the conversation, Joe feels he has to prove his continuing closeness to Michael. So he picks up the phone, punches in a number, and begins talking. “I have the writer from Billboard here. Nelson George, yeah.” Then he hands me the receiver.

Michael Jackson sounds as uncomfortable as I feel. I tell him it’s a pleasure to talk with him, though Michael’s short, low-energy reply makes it clear the feeling is not mutual. I awkwardly try to engage him in conversation and ask for a face-to-face interview. Dead air.

Joe takes the receiver from me, and my only direct conversation with Michael Jackson is over. Perhaps if Joe hadn’t bullied Michael into talking with me, maybe I would have eventually gotten some quality time with MJ. Or maybe he just wasn’t interested. So while the content of the talk was feeble, the context of that brief conversation was rich, a real window into the relationship between father and son. Joe wanted to prove he could still get in touch with Michael anytime he wanted, no matter how much that imposed on his son’s privacy. For Michael this forced conversation was likely just another of the innumerable indignities that the star would become fed up with, one of the many reasons that decades later Joe was left out of his son’s will.

This display of power by Joe was one of many intimate moments with the Jacksons’ circle I’d experience during the period from 1981 to 1985, when Michael and the folks around him were central to the story of American popular music. I’d meet a lot of people who would give insight into the world that made Michael and the world Michael would make.

“LOS ANGELES IS DEFINED by vast geographical distances and the cars needed to travel them, by sun and smog, by beauty and a tacky squalor almost redeemed by the absence of cold,” wrote music critic John Rockwell of the sound of Hollywood in the late 1970s. “The distances and the general lack of high culture (it exists but has to be sought out) have bred a sense of isolation, not just of the various communities that make up the Los Angeles basin but of the individuals and especially the creative individuals within these communities.”

Focusing on the music business, Rockwell added: “Socializing thus tends to be cliquish, like-minded souls seeking one another out and guarding what they share against the environment. People congregate in recording studios or at ritualized industry functions, and it’s possible to go for what seems like years without meeting anyone who doesn’t reinforce your own longstanding opinions.”

When Berry Gordy shifted Motown’s operations from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he did more than nurture the Jackson 5. He changed the geographic balance of power in black pop. Just as Detroit had Motown, other cities with substantial African American populations (Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans, Cincinnati) all had local labels that supported homegrown entertainers.

LA and New York had always been major destinations, but Motown’s move west, coupled with the major labels jumping deeply into black music in the 1970s, meant that an aspiring artist had to be in either city to find session work, network with industry figures, and get signed to a label. So along with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and the musicians and staff Motown employed, future big names such as Chicago’s Maurice White (founder of Earth, Wind and Fire), Tulsa’s Charlie Wilson (lead singer of the Gap Band), and midwesterners Antonio Reid and Kenny Edmonds (future hit-making producer/writers) relocated out west because that’s where the action was.

This shift coincided with two other black pop phenomena: blaxploitation movies featuring black storylines, creating black stars (Pam Grier, Fred Williamson), and driven by dynamic funk soundtracks; and Don Cornelius’s Soul Train, a syndicated black dance show that gave a regular national profile to black artists, style, and dance. At the same time, there was an influx of black kids into the private and public schools of the Hollywood elite. Jackie, who was the oldest and the best athlete, fit in best, playing sports and chasing girls with easy charm. Jermaine, Marlon, and Tito all enjoyed the bubble of pseudonormalcy that LA can provide for celebrities and their offspring. Michael, being young and shy, and already a star among stars, didn’t mix very easily or very well, his childlike voice the object of ridicule from friends and family alike. That he had pimples and didn’t play sports didn’t help his social life either. Nevertheless, through his more outgoing brothers, Michael socialized with and met scores of folks and created a few enduring friendships.

One of the kids who became part of the Jackson boys’ circle was John McClain, a lean, handsome young man whose mother was jazz pianist Shirley Scott and whose father owned a string of funeral homes around LA. McClain hung with the Jacksons as they evolved from a kiddie pop group into a young adult band. McClain himself played several instruments but would make his name as a record executive.

McClain joined A&M Records in the early 1980s as an A&R executive and would sign Janet to a record deal when she was sixteen. I met John around this time, just before he hooked the youngest Jackson daughter up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and created the Jackson family’s second superstar.

After Michael’s death, the name John McClain became known to those closely following the battle over the estate because, along with Jackson’s former attorney John Branca, McClain was named in Michael’s will as an executor of his estate. Unlike Branca, who’s always been a very visible figure in the Hollywood entertainment firmament, John hasn’t spoken to the media in years and has appeared in very few photographs over the last decade.

Back in the mid-1980s, John was an emerging figure in the black music business and something of a friend of mine. He was a soft-spoken dude with a sly sense of humor and a very generous soul. He was part of a tightly knit community of executives, managers, and attorneys who either grew up in LA or had moved there post-Motown. Before Prince became a superstar and hip-hop emerged as a national commercial force, this group really set the direction for black pop music.

The Motown building on Sunset Boulevard, right across from the historic Hollywood Palladium concert hall and two blocks from the famed Cineramadome, was a nexus for the black music community, as non-Motown folks, from accountants to publicists to managers, moved into the building or into the area around it. A homely little black-owned spot named Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, on Gower one block from the Motown building, became a major black entertainment business lunch spot and today is a classic LA eatery.

The values of the LA community were very different from those I knew in New York, where disco was losing steam, the city was recovering from a fiscal crisis, and crime was rampant. Sure, there was gritty street life in LA, but not where black Hollywood hung. At Carlos and Charlie’s, a two-story Sunset Strip nightclub, you’d find Eddie Murphy, Hollywood’s hottest young star, along with his posse of homeboys (known jokingly as the A Team) and lots of gorgeous groupies. Rick James, Jim Brown, and a young Prince were among the regulars you’d spot in a booth upstairs.

At Carlos and Charlie’s or at a happening Hollywood Hills party, moist California curls, tenaciously teased new wavy hair, young black folks in Corvette convertibles, and girls in dresses so short they’d have been illegal in several states were on display. Living a sun-kissed existence created an R&B aesthetic that celebrated smooth over raw, shiny studio perfection over raunchy funk. There were some important exceptions (the Gap Band on LA- based Total Experience Records, some of Leon Sylvers’s production at Sound of Los Angeles Records), but no one mistook the early 1980s sound of black pop for Booker T. and the MGs. Contributing to this change was growing use of computer technology. Bands such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Cameo, and Con Funk Shun, all featuring horn sections and several percussion instruments, replaced human players with synthesizers and drum machines.

In this social and musical context, Michael Jackson’s collaborations with Quincy Jones, starting with Off the Wall in 1979, were as important for his development as a Hollywood player as for his work as a musician. Quincy was one of the few prominent African American figures in Hollywood in the years before Motown arrived. After a distinguished career as a jazz arranger, bandleader, and record executive, Quincy moved to LA and became one of the few black composers to work regularly in Hollywood.

Aside from working on movies such as The Anderson Tapes, Quincy penetrated the popular consciousness by penning TV themes for Ironside, The Bill Cosby Show, Sanford and Son, and the historic Roots miniseries. He married one of the 1960s hottest blonds, Peggy Lipton of Mod Squad fame, and became a popular guest at Hollywood parties, where he and actor Sidney Poitier were often the only blacks in attendance. He was a popular presence at the Grammys, the Oscars, and every other major event on the LA social calendar.

The Wiz was the fourth score Quincy had composed or supervised for director Sidney Lumet. Aside from introducing Michael to genius engineer Bruce Swedien and a powerhouse community of musicians Quincy had already worked with (the Brothers Johnson, members of Rufus) during the sessions of Off the Wall, Quincy opened up his wider circle of relationships to Michael. It was Quincy who brought Paul McCartney’s “Girlfriend” to the sessions and who introduced Michael to the ex-Beatle, fostering a relationship that would pay big dividends for Michael and foreshadow his entry into the pop music pantheon.