Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Michael Jackson; Dancing
Michael Jackson; Dancing JACKSON 5 OFF THE WALL Michael Jackson Thriller 25

The much-publicized 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking, history-making “Thriller” by Michael Jackson is a reminder – for those who may have forgotten – that the legendary music man has been recording as a solo artist for an amazing thirty-six years!

Unlike virtually any other artist with such longevity, Michael has only made a total of nine solo albums in that time period, four for Motown (from 1972-75), the rest for Epic. Of course that the lead singer for the Jackson Five would have a solo career at all had a certain inevitability to it for those of us who witnessed the J5 when the group first broke onto the international music scene in 1969: I can still recall seeing the group in its heyday at Wembley in the early ‘70s, dazzled by the choreography, the harmonies and Michael’s heartfelt outfront vocals.

The story of the Jacksons is well known: born in Gary, Indiana, the brothers (Tito, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael) were encouraged by their father, Joe to pursue their natural interest in music; by 1966, they had entered and won a local talent contest and a year later, the five siblings were at the world-famous Apollo Theater in New York where they won the amateur talent contest (the launching pad for all manner of other future stars including Stephanie Mills). Gladys Knight saw the group and apparently recommended them to Berry Gordy Jr. at Motown but initially to no avail. The team recorded for a local label and even did a session for Atlantic’s Cotillion label but it wasn’t until another Motown artist Bobby Taylor insisted that Gordy check them out that the group’s fortunes changed.

Gordy was suitably impressed by the Jackson’s musicality and a year after signing them in 1968, Motown released the J5’s classic single “I Want You Back,” with a then-eleven-year old Michael on lead. After several more hits with the group, Motown sent Michael into the studio to make his first solo recordings in ’71: “Got To Be There” became a Top 5 pop and R&B smash and was followed by a cover of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” and Leon Ware’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” Michael ended 1972 with a No. 1 U.S. single in the form of “Ben,” the theme from a movie about a trained rat of the same name.

By the time Motown released Michael’s fourth LP (“Forever Michael”), his solo career was somewhat in the doldrums. His appearance in the movie version of “The Wiz” alongside Diana Ross brought him in contact with legendary producer Quincy Jones and since The Jacksons had been signed to Epic in 1976, the label also became Michael’s solo recording home. “Off The Wall,” an excellent first Jones-Jackson collaboration (spurred by the magnetic single “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”) sold a cool seven million copies in the U.S. (and a few more worldwide) and signaled Michael’s arrival as a bonafide musical superstar.

Released in 1982, “Thriller” broke all kinds of records, selling an amazing forty million copies, spawning seven hits from its nine tracks (think, “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T.,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “The Girl Is Mine”) and bringing music video to a new level of International popularity and success. Trying to top such an accomplishment would be impossible for any artist: even though albums such as 1987’s “Bad” (with some fine tracks like “Man In The Mirror” and “Smooth Criminal”) and 1991’s “Dangerous” performed well by most standards (each selling millions of copies), the constant comparisons with “Thriller” must have been somewhat difficult for Jackson to handle. Certainly, his increasingly ‘different’ behaviour, the changes in his appearance (brought on by a skin condition, vitiligo) and his reputation for eccentricity didn’t help: he was dubbed ‘Wacko Jacko’ by the British press and he never quite escaped the moniker.

In 1995, Epic released a 2-CD set, “HIStory: Past, Present And Future, Book 1” which contained some new material (including his duet with sister Janet, “Scream”) and in 2001 came what was his most recent album of all new work, “Invincible” for which he teamed with urban producers such as Rodney Jerkins. With all the masses of publicity that have surrounded Michael’s much-reported legal battles, it’s easy to forget the pioneering role he played in contemporary music in the ‘80s: the 2008 deluxe reissue of “Thriller” with one brand new track from the original sessions (“For All Time”) is a timely reminder.

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