Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Sharon Davis' reflections: Michael Jackson - A special life...

Michael Jackson (1969)
Michael Jackson (1969)

B&S' Sharon Davis takes a heartfelt look back at the life of the enigma that is Michael Jackson. From the highest of highs to the most painful lows... But one thing is for sure - there will never be another Michael Jackson...

One: Michael Jackson has been rushed 2 hosp in LA. Reports r that he’s not breathing.

Two: MJ supposed 2 av died of a heart attack.

Three: Sposed 2 b ina coma. Family at his bedside.

Four: LA Times says he’s died.

The first text arrived just as the Commodores bounced on stage during the Legends Of Motown show at London’s Wembley. The other three followed within minutes of each other as the group played on. When I think about it now, it seemed so ironic that I should get this heartbreaking news during a Commodores concert because, as you know, the group were support act to the Jackson 5 in 1970, when Motown celebrated its 10th anniversary and as the brothers were riding high on a trio of American chart-toppers – 'I Want You Back', 'ABC' and 'The Love You Save'.

And still the Commodores played on. Was I the only person at Wembley who knew? Shouldn’t somebody do something, say something? If indeed the news was true…..

And it was. Michael died on Thursday, 25 June 2009. With a heavy heart and tears of disbelief in our eyes, we watched a sobbing Jermaine tell the world that he’d lost his little brother. I then spoke to Martha Reeves, and she’d been plagued by the media wanting her to dig the dirt on Michael, to talk about his drug problem and so on. Why should I want to do that, she cried. Michael was the hardest working man I know; he was a huge inspiration to us all and to the world, so, why would I want to bring him down? At this juncture she was one of the first artists to suggest that gala performances in his memory be held at the 02 Arena instead of returning tickets, and I later noticed this idea being kicked around in the press.

Born on 29 August 1958, little Michael Joseph became an international recording artist and entertainer; composer and producer, and a businessman. Personally speaking, he was a loving son and brother to eight siblings and devoted father, godfather and uncle. At this point, I don’t give a fig for any of the mischief makers stirring up trouble about his oddball behaviour, his financial dilemmas or his crazy lifestyle, because at the end of the day his children have lost their father, his family their son and brother, and we’ve lost an artist who with one stroke of his genius pen changed the landscape of popular music for ever. His groundbreaking ideas and his experiments with styling and phrasing have been copied, but never replaced, during the past decades. He ran when other artists walked; he took risks when others played it safe.

When Berry Gordy signed him with his brothers to Motown in 1969/1970 he could see the budding talent behind the nervousness of the audition tape. And he was proven right when, under his guidance and with Diana Ross’ public promotion, the Jackson 5 became to the seventies what The Beatles were to the sixties. Chaotic fan mania followed the brothers across the world and when the group visited London for the first time to perform at the (then) Talk Of The Town in 1972, I met the young singer when he was looking for the loo, while outside in the street fans all but pushed in the theatre’s front doors. At Motown, Michael broke free from his brothers to record 'Got To Be There', his first of four official albums and the hysteria began again! The Motown bubble burst in 1975 and the brothers signed a new deal with CBS where Michael would record as a group member and as a soloist. Due to legal reasons the Jackson 5 became The Jacksons, and Motown retained the rights to all their catalogue released and unreleased.

Well, at CBS we were treated to mega-hits like 'Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)' and the eye-watering 'Can You Feel It?' while solo Michael starred as the Scarecrow against Diana Ross’ Dorothy in the film version of 'The Wiz'. Quincy Jones produced the film’s score and built up a relationship with young Michael which led to him producing his first CBS solo album 'Off The Wall' in 1979. For possibly the first time we were introduced to a confident artist both on record and on video, where he excelled as a dancer and entertainer. The album generated an amazing five UK hits – "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough", 'Off The Wall', 'Rock With You', 'She’s Out Of My Life' and 'Girlfriend.' Garnering sales of 20 million, the album was a multi winner of awards including a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough."

He then went on to win a Grammy for his 1982 contribution 'Someone In The Dark' to the 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' movie before the world prepared itself for the mighty 'Thriller'. Nobody in their wildest dreams could have predicted what would happen with this release, but let’s just recap. Released in November ’82, the album was selling one million copies a week at its height. Seven of the album’s nine tracks were released as singles including these UK hits – 'The Girl Is Mine', 'Billie Jean' (no 1), 'Beat It', 'Thriller' 'P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)' and "Wanna Be Startin’ Something” – and, amazing of amazing, 'Thriller' won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards in three different genres: R&B, Pop and Rock! It also became the best selling album of all time, with sales said to be 109 million! To say Michael had peaked would be an understatement; he was at the very top of the entertainment world; he was receiving the highest royalty rate ever at $2 per album, and was, quite frankly, untouchable. Anyway, not content with the vinyl version, Michael issued the documentary video 'The Making Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller' and oversaw the sale of related memorabilia which also brought in a few bob. I think it’s fair to say, the whole 'Thriller' project changed music and prompted the industry to sit up and think again. Because here was a young man who had the balls to record what was in his heart and soul, and it worked. We loved every note. So, an industry that was searching for new ideas but not finding them, welcomed the injection of reckless but high-priority originality. Inevitably, other artists followed Michael’s lead, but not many achieved his greatness.

During this time, the greatest thrill for me (and I’m sure thousands others) was to see Michael reunited with his brothers on 'Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever' television special. Not only did the group’s performance bring back so many happy moments, but Michael performed his moonwalk to a disbelieving audience. Simply outa this world. It’s magical times like this that makes us all proud to be a part of this unpredictable world of soul music.

Concentrating on the highlights in Michael’s career brings us next to 'We Are The World', the charity single he wrote with Lionel Richie to be recorded by USA for Africa to raise funds for the desperately needy in Africa and America. Michael was one of 39 music celebrities who crammed themselves in a recording studio to record this easy-listening song, following in the footsteps of Bob Geldoff’s earlier charity release 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?' by a British artist collective called Band Aid. Michael worked with Paul McCartney before purchasing ATV Songs which included songs penned by Lennon and McCartney between 1963-1973 for the princely sum of $47.5 million. Starring in the 3-d film 'Captain EO' was next, which was seen in Disney theme parks for eleven years or so. Then came 'Bad', his first studio album for five years. Being the follow-up to 'Thriller', it didn’t stand a chance but was nonetheless – by anyone’s standards - a huge success spawning UK hits like 'I Just Can’t Stop Loving You', 'Bad', 'The Way You Make Me Feel', 'Man In The Mirror', 'Dirty Diana', 'Smooth Criminal', 'Another Part Of Me' and 'Liberian Girl'. Sales weren’t too bad – coming in at a cool 30 million!! From the musical note to the written word when Michael penned his autobiography 'Moon Walk' during 1988. He took four years to write it and sold in excess of 200,000 copies. Also this year he bought 2,700 acres of land at a cost of $17 million, in California to build Neverland Ranch.

From 'Bad' came 'Dangerous' in 1991 from which nine British hits were culled including 'Black Or White', 'In The Closet', 'Jam', 'Heal The World' and 'Will You Be There'. Then came the 'HIStory' project four years later. The double album titled 'HIStory: Past, Present And Future', a greatest hits package was, as you’ll remember, promoted by the 10 metre tall steel and fibreglass statue of Michael dressed in his now trademark military-styled clothes, floating down/up the River Thames. The duet with his sister Janet, 'Scream' was the first lifted single; 'You Are Not Alone' followed, but it was 'Earth Song' and 'They Don’t Care About Us' which won Michael a pair of UK chart-toppers.

'Blood On The Dancefloor – History In The Making', containing remixes of some 'HIStory' tracks, included five original songs. One of these, the album’s title, hit the British top spot in May 1997, followed by 'History/Ghosts' which didn’t. Many felt it was a strange release, but it went on to become the best selling re-mix album to date. So he must have been doing something right! Six years after his last studio album when Michael spent most of his time out of the public spotlight, he released 'Invincible' during October 2001. The album suffered low sales because it was issued during a time of debate between Michael and Sony, received low keyed promotion and maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as vital as his previous releases. Nonetheless, he enjoyed two lifted UK hit singles – 'You Rock My World' and 'Cry'. Without support though, the project floundered and died, and as Michael’s private life attracted more headlines than his music, only his faithful, diehard fans remained loyal to his music.

Since childhood Michael’s voice has developed from a teenage soprano to high tenor/falsetto (I can’t think of another word here). Never strong, his voice was like a butterfly as it flitted from note to note; it was almost feathery and fragile, and his styling embraced any melody. His short, high pitched shrieks and catching his breath between verses became his trademark. He moved into more grittier vocals during the 'Bad' sessions, but as he grew older the sadness in his voice became more apparent. On some tracks he sounded almost desperate but always smooth, graceful and exquisite. With music came dance – and how! Thanks to his videos that accompanied his major single releases we were able to gasp at his extreme mobility, his moon walking and his penchant to grab his crotch far too many times. He used his videos as message carriers and invited celebrities to join him on the more elaborate productions which soared in costs, but which were inevitably recouped when released commercially.
Throughout his life Michael has privately donated and raised millions of dollars to benefit at least forty charities, and in 1992 opened the 'Heal The World Foundation', one of several. Earnings from his many sold out tours were also ploughed in charity funds, while royalties from certain records were earmarked for particular organisations ranging from AIDS to children threatened by disease or war. At the peak of his career, Michael’s earnings topped $500 million. Also, he has received more awards, honours and accolades than any other popular artist – too many to list of course, but includes 13 Grammies – and has sold in excess of 750 million albums internationally (and counting) making him the world’s top selling male solo pop artist.

Well, what more can I say here. Next month we were destined to see him perform on his 'This Is It' series of concerts, but tragically that isn’t to be. The world is in mourning and it will be for some time yet. We’ll have to ride the mayhem, the rumours, lies, speculations and mischief making because it can’t harm him anymore, he’s resting peacefully, and his children will be shielded from damaging headlines. To close then, let’s return to that first Commodores/Jackson 5 tour of 1970 when Lionel Richie remembered - “We came off-stage and here was little Michael running around playing pattycake and pinching people. Then the stage darkened and the lights came back on, and there was this same little kid tearing the place down!”

I’ll always remember where I was when Michael Jackson died, and I’m glad it was at a Motown event. Seems fitting somehow.

Our most sincerest condolences to Michael’s children and immediate family, especially Jermaine who publicly bore such a heavy burden. I know it’s no consolation at this time, but through his wonderful and timeless musical legacy that he’s left to the world, Michael Jackson will live forever.

Sharon x

With thanks to Hazel Eagle, Gerry Constable and Julie Rough

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