By Michael A. Gonzales
With the release of the much-anticipated Michael Jackson film This Is It coming on October 28, perhaps folks can finally step away from the television gossip programs and pay attention to what made the King of Pop special in the first place: brilliant songs combined with hypnotic performance skills.
Having last seen Jackson rock a screaming audience back in 1989 on the Bad tour, I still remember the blissful faces of the fans staring in awe and cheering as he cast a spell of pure showmanship. While it was obvious that Jackson put in hours of rehearsal, on stage his flow was effortless. Sliding from one step into another as the music built, Michael Jackson was enchanting and beautiful, electric and dangerous.
Yet, since his death this past June, Jackson’s aural brilliance and extraordinary body of work has been overshadowed by the singer’s bizarre life.
Beginning his career as front-boy/lead singer for the sibling group the Jackson 5, who came from the grimy hood of Gary, Indiana, it was not long before the adorable Michael became every little girl’s fantasy boyfriend. Throwing down on hypnotic Motown tracks like “ABC” (which Naughty By Nature sampled on their 1991 classic “O.P.P.”) and “Who’s Lovin’ You,” it did not take long for label honcho Berry Gordy to try to double his money by turning Michael into a solo star.
In the same way Gordy had pried Diana Ross away from The Supremes, he envisioned big things for a solo Michael. Though Poppa Jackson was against it, they reached a compromise: baby boy was allowed to record solo projects as long as he remained a part of the J5.
With the release of Got to Be There in the fall of 1971, Michael’s squeaky voiced remake of the 1958 Bobby Day song “Rockin’ Robin” soon dominated pop radio. Still, it was on M.J.’s version of Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Leon Ware’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” that the record buying public heard hints of the heartbreaking tenderness that would be explored years later on songs “She’s Out of My Life” and “Liberian Girl.”
Unlike other performers who were content to show up, record their parts, and break out, Michael Jackson became “a sponge in the studio,” picking the brain of everyone from the songwriters and arrangers to Berry Gordy himself. While the label offered the brothers no creative freedom in choosing material or arrangements—one reason they left for Epic Records in 1976—Michael’s studio schooling would later help turn the curious child into a recording prodigy.
In 1972, the enduring innocence of “Ben” became the title track of Michael’s second solo outing. Used as the main theme for a horror flick of the same name, the single sold millions. If any other artist had sung an ode to a killer rat, it would’ve been ridiculous; but as with many of Michael’s experiments, he was able to turn the syrupy 1972 song into a number-one smash.
Although Jackson’s solo success predated the birth of hip-hop by a few years, the common thread that bounds the two was an obvious love for soul music. Michael covered Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” and Sly Stone’s “Stand.” Nevertheless, like Marley Marl and tons of other rap producers, Jackson worshipped the icon that was James Brown. As a kid, little Michael studied Brown’s moves, grooves, and growls and carried those funky lessons from the stage to the studio.
While Motown put out four Michael Jackson solo albums, the last being Forever, Michael in 1975, it wasn’t until the release of Off the Wall four years later that the young star proved he had staying power. Michael had met Quincy Jones while working on the motion picture The Wiz and the creative cheimstry was undeniable. But though Jones had worked with major artists from Frank Sinatra to The Brothers Johnson, the young star had to fight with his new label Epic Records to get the producer involved with the project.
“Michael was crushed, but he was also very savvy when it came to business,” Jones told Newsweek. “It was one of his attributes that I think people underestimated. He’d been around the record business long enough with the Jackson 5 to know how to work record executives. He flatly told the label that I was doing the album.”
Of course the Jackson/Jones collaboration proved to be a match made in pop heaven. Their work together, from Off The Wall to Thriller to Bad, became one of the most successful musical marriages since Dionne Warwick met Burt Bacharach or Gamble & Huff hooked up with the O’Jays.
Allowed more creative freedom than on previous projects, Michael’s 1979 classic Off the Wall was an exciting fusion of hyper-disco (“Don’t Stop till You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night”), brilliant balladry (“She’s Out of My Life,” “I Can’t Help It”) and smooth pop (“Rock With You,” “It’s the Falling in Love”).
Unlike the Motown albums—which were essentially wonderful singles like “In A Child’s Heart” or “Just A Little Bit of You” surrounded by filler—every track on Off the Wall was magical. “Michael was involved in the whole album,” says keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, who also played on Thriller and Dangerous. “Q is basically an overseer who runs the show without really running the show. The icing he adds to the cake can be the difference between a good tune and a great one.”
Although Thriller was the bigger-selling album, it’s should be obvious that the 10x platinum Off the Wall has had its own share of influence on contemporary superstars Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott, The Neptunes and countless others.
“Michael’s vocabulary of grunts, squeals, hiccups, moans, and asides is a vivid reminder that he’s grown up,” wrote critic Robert Christgau in The Village Voice. Even though Quincy deservedly gets much of the credit for assisting Jackson’s transition from boy to man, it would be wrong to overlook the stellar songwriting and keyboard wizardry of former Heatwave member Rod Temperton.
A white soul man from England, Temperton penned the classic ballad “Always and Forever” and was recruited by Jones to be part of Off The Wall’s creative team that included Paul McCartney (who wrote “Girlfriend”), George Duke, David Foster, Larry Carlton and Louis Johnson. As on many Michael Jackson songs, the sessions were a rainbow coalition of top-rate talent.
As Jackson put it, “I don’t hire color, I hire competence.”
Temperton wrote the title track as well as “Rock With You,” and three years later the prolific songwriter wrote the spooky aural horror film that was “Thriller.” Though the song was originally called “Starlight,” Jones insisted on a new title.
“I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles and came up with ‘Midnight Man,’” Temperton once said. “The next morning I woke up and I just said this word. Something in my head just said, ‘This is the title’. You could visualize it at the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller.’”
At this point, it’s redundant to say that Thriller is the biggest-selling record of all time, but at the time no one could’ve predicted that the record would move over 20 million units worldwide. The only thing that was certain was that Michael Jackson was still hungry.
The pop fluff of the first single, “The Girl Is Mine”—another Paul McCartney collabo—gave no indication of the album’s greatness. Fans and critics alike hated the song—in retrospect it was like biting into a spoiled appetizer before being presented with a gourmet meal.
A few months later Thriller’s paranoid second single “Billie Jean” was released, and there was no looking back. Though it seems silly today, the video became the first clip from a Black pop artist to air on MTV. Besides teaming up with Quincy Jones, perhaps Jackson’s smartest collaboration was recruiting heavy metal guitar god Eddie Van Halen (who reportedly supplied his trademark solo free of charge) for the third single “Beat It.”
Of course, Michael would go on to become the biggest entertainer on Planet Pop, but there was no way he (or anybody else, for that matter) would ever top the success of Thriller. The follow-up, Bad, was a major success by all normal standards, generating five Billboard #1’s including the reflective “Man in the Mirror,” the cool streetwise title track, and the wild “Smooth Criminal.” Still, for whatever reason, Bad was the last project that Jones and Jackson worked on together.
Proving that he always had his ear to the streets, Michael Jackson surprised the world when he pulled in New Jack Swing mastermind Teddy Riley to helm the 1991 Dangerous album. Best known for his hybrid hip-hop/R&B productions for Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D & the Boyz (who had also recorded with Mike’s little sister Janet), and Bobby Brown, Teddy Riley was an Harlem native who had grown up admiring Jackson and was determined to prove himself as more than a R&B producer. He did just that on tracks like the funky “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” but perhaps the flyest song on the entire album was “Remember the Time,” Jackson’s last true masterpiece.
Later on, there were memorable collaborations with R. Kelly and the Notorious B.I.G. And in 2001, Jackson’s last proper studio album, Invincible, featured the wonderful Rodney Jerkins–produced tracks “You Rock My World” and “Butterflies.”
Not long after Jackson’s death, it was announced that there might be over 100 unreleased tracks in Jackson’s vaults, and the footage from the rehearsal of his upcoming This is It concerts was discovered. In the wake of strange relatives pimping his spirit and countless folks lining up to share all sorts of sordid stories, a musical memorial like This Is It comes as a big relief to Michael’s true fans as well as those who have been so distracted by the complex public image that they’ve been unable to embrace his talent.
If This Is It lives up to its promise, this will be a fitting reminder of the artist who understood how to seduce from the stage while making every move special. Michael Jackson’s life might’ve been spiraling out of control, but on-stage the brother was always in control.
To read more stories by Michael A. Gonzales go to http://www.soulsummer.com/
Twenty-one years after “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour has a new album, a few regrets, and no intention of ever wearing neon spandex again.
By Michael A. Gonzales
I haven’t been in this studio since my second-grade class took the NBC tour years ago,” blurts 51-year-old Living Colour guitarist and founder Vernon Reid. Onstage at Late Night With Jimmy Fallonafter a rehearsal, the group—best known for its soaring, catchy 1988 megahit “Cult of Personality” and a now long ago habit of wearing bright spandex—is back, still endeavoring to mix commercial pop and agitprop. Their new album, The Chair in the Doorway, features the single they just thrashed through, called “Behind the Sun.” It’s about Katrina. “Originally, Vernon and I started writing ‘Behind the Sun’ with ‘The World Is a Ghetto’ kind of theme,” singer Corey Glover, 44, says, referencing the classic War song about universal poverty. “But after my wife and I went to New Orleans earlier this year and witnessed firsthand how devastated that part of the country still is four years later, I felt compelled to change the lyrics.”
The new single was well received, but Fallon’s production crew and stagehands really came alive to the band’s rendition of “Cult of Personality.” Released the same year as landmark New York City soundtracks It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy) and Daydream Nation (Sonic Youth), the song was in constant rotation on MTV, and made them stars. As it reaches its chaotic climax in the studio, everybody in the room begins excitedly clapping and cheering. The band smiles shyly, as though amazed by the crowd’s reaction to a song they’ve played for more than twenty years.
Reid and Glover met at a birthday party in Brooklyn in 1986. Glover was born and raised in Brooklyn and today lives in Harlem with his wife, a schoolteacher, and two sons. Reid was born in London to a Caribbean family and immigrated to Brooklyn when he was 2. He was given the Jimi Hendrix album Band of Gypsyswhile a student at Brooklyn Tech High School; he was also a Santana nut after first hearing “Black Magic Woman” on WNEW. These days, he lives on Staten Island with his dancer wife and 6-year-old daughter.
“We got in late last night from our gig in Dallas, and then I had to wake up early this morning and take my boys to school. I came straight to the studio from there,” Glover says backstage, before kicking off his green Pro-Keds for a nap. Reid comes in with a $20 bill someone gave him right out of an ATM. On the back, someone has written obama is a nazi along the borders. “Can you believe this?” he asks, feigning shock.
While rock-history books overflow with references to groups like Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones, little has been documented about pioneering black rock bands PBR Streetgang, 24-7 Spyz, Eye & I, Faith, and J.J. Jumpers, who performed at the same Lower East Side venues. But at the time, there was a scene, spearheaded by a nonprofit called the Black Rock Coalition, which Reid helped to start in 1985. “The price of real estate makes it impossible to repeat,” laments Reid, who spoke at CBGB owner Hilly Kristal’s memorial in 2007. “Nobody can afford just to open some little hole in the wall where bands can develop.”
Fiddling with a bottle of water, Reid twists off the cap and takes a sip. “Success is disruptive in ways that some people don’t understand,” he explains. “In the beginning, Living Colour was a local band fighting to get noticed, struggling to get a following, and battling record labels to take us seriously. But once all of that happened, we still weren’t prepared.” Living Colour split up in 1995 and reformed to tour again in 2001. “Before Living Colour broke up, there was a lot of pressure on us,” Reid says. “My first marriage was breaking up; Living Colour was touring, but communication within the band was spotty. The problem with men is, we don’t have a language for emotion. We’ll curse at each other but never really talk.”
Forty minutes after he drops off, Glover stirs awake. Stretching, he knocks over my cup of coffee. “Sorry about that, man,” he says.
“These days, Living Colour is on a family vibe, with Vernon as the big brother,” Glover says, laughing. “It used to be that Vernon and I were constantly fighting for attention. But we complement each other. Vernon is never going to be able to sing like me, and I’m never going to play guitar like him. After all this time, we finally realize how important it is just to be around one another.”