Michael Jackson And The Motown Years: The Beginning Of A Legacy
Although it feels like everyone in the entire world has a special connection to Michael Jackson, whether it be imitating the thriller dance at family parties, pretending to be the Jackson 5 with your siblings or moon walking past your high school crush, Detroit natives have a very special connection to Michael Jackson and the very beginnings of his career.
Although he was not born in Detroit, it is safe to say the legacy and commercial success of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 started on Motown in Detroit. Michael Jackson, born August 29, 1958 in Gary, Indiana, spent nearly his entire life as a public performer. At age four he was singing with the family group; a charismatic bundle of energy who was musically wise beyond his years, he soon became their lead vocalist and front man.
From Classic Motown: The Jackson Five—Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and Tito—signed to Motown Records at the end of 1968, and were immediately groomed for stardom: “They’ll have three No. 1 records in a row,” Motown founder Berry Gordy famously announced before any records were released. In fall 1969 they exploded with “I Want You Back,” one of the greatest singles in pop history.
“I Want You Back” was the first of four consecutive no. 1 pop hits, as “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” followed. Flip sides such as “Who’s Lovin’ You,” a knockout performance by Michael with all the hallmarks of a great soul artist, illustrated his remarkable maturity.
“Got to Be There” is a 1971 single released by Michael Jackson on the Motown label. It was the singer’s first solo single following his successful tenure as the lead singer of The Jackson 5.
Jackson’s solo career began in earnest after its success. The single, written by Elliot Willensky and produced by longtime Jackson 5 producer Hal Davis, was an immediate success. It reached #1 on the Cashbox singles chart, and #4 on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. It also dominated some European markets, including a #5 position in the UK Singles Chart. With this first hit as a solo artist secured, Motown helped to establish Jackson as a solo act while still with his brothers. This song is included in the album Got to Be There (1972).
His debut solo album Got To Be There was released in January 1972 and reached the pop Top 20. The LP also spun off “Rockin’ Robin,” a cover of a fifties smash that hit no. 2 pop and R&B, and “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (top 20 pop/no. 2 R&B).
In July 1972 Michael sang “Ben,” the title song from a movie about a trained rat, and it became his first solo pop no. 1. Michael’s emotional, sincere performance helped the song win a Golden Globe Award, and it was nominated for an Oscar®.
The stylistically rich Ben album showcased Michael’s interpretive skills: the tracks included a moody cover of the Stylistics’ moody “People Make The World Go Round,” which in later years became a favorite of hip-hoppers; the happy, funky “We’ve Got A Good Thing Going;” and a nod to the great jazz singer Jimmy Scott, a man-child of another era, with a cover of Scott’s signature song “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
MJ was still only 14 years old.
Music & Me, released April 13, 1973, was Michael’s next album—a push towards more adult contemporary pop like “Ben,” which backfired commercially, although it contains fine performances, including “With A Child’s Heart,” originally cut by Stevie Wonder, Motown’s sixties teen superstar, and a vocal version of “Happy,” the love theme from Lady Sings The Blues, the Gordy-produced film on the life of Billie Holiday released the previous that starred Jackson mentor Diana Ross.
Michael Jackson’s confidant J Randy Taraborrelli, who had known the star for 40 years interviewed Michael back in 1978 about his relationship with Diana Ross:
The 18-year-old Michael Jackson was coy when I interviewed him back in 1978 and we got on to the subject of his friends. I asked about teenage actress Tatum O’Neal, with whom he was supposed to be going out. ‘She’s nice,’ he said. ‘She’s teaching me to drive.’
I pressed him further. ‘Any other friends?’ ‘Well, I do have one,’ he said. ‘A very dear, close friend that I can tell my deepest, darkest secrets to because I know she won’t tell anyone else. Her name is … ‘
He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Miss Diana Ross.’
In his will Jackson wanted Ross –who he called one of his dearest friends — to take care of his children if his mother, Katherine Jackson, was not alive or was unable to do so. In the video below you can feel their connection, it was very natural, not to mention hilarious!
Forever, Michael, released in January 1975, got things back on the R&B track.
A more danced-oriented project that featured the return of Brian and Edward Holland to Motown, the LP hit the Black Album chart top 10, while its tracks “We’re Almost There” and “Just A Little Bit Of You” both peaked inside the R&B Singles top 10. In the two years prior, the Jackson 5, after a commercial lull, had been successful with dance tracks, particularly the smash no. 1 “Dancing Machine.”
Those four albums might have been the end of the story for Michael and Motown, as he and the group, sans Jermaine, left to go to Epic Records. Michael was 17 years old. Although Michael did not spend the rest of his career at Motown it is safe to say he made a lasting impression in Detroit at Motown that no other city can call their own. Here is Motown’s 25th Anniversary Celebration of Michael Jackson & The Jacksons:
While the group—now the Jacksons—kept the groove going, MJ set aside his solo career. He took up acting, memorably appearing as the Scarecrow in The Wiz with Diana Ross in 1978.
He struck up a friendship with the film’s music producer, Quincy Jones and, in 1979, at age 21.
MJ re-ignited his solo career, collaborating with Jones on Off The Wall.
In the aftermath of its huge success, Motown issued the compilation One Day In Your Life, on March 25, 1981. Its title song—lifted from Forever, Michael—turned into a no. 1 hit in the U.K. and top 40 AC in the U.S.
Then came Thriller. The hits. The videos. The moonwalk on Motown 25. In May 1984 Motown released the LP Farewell My Summer Love.
This was a batch of songs from the vault with contemporary overdubs; the title song went top 10 R&B. Two years later Motown issued Looking Back To Yesterday, a collection of more vault masters—some with the J5—that contained further unexpected gems.
All songs were previously unreleased (except for “Love’s Gone Bad”, which was released in 1979 on the Motown compilation Boogie. “I Was Made To Love Her” also appeared on that album, but in an alternate take.) The album was re-released in August 1991 and re-titled Looking Back To Yesterday: A Young Michael.
Michael and his brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
Michael went in as a solo artist in 2001. “He has transfixed the world like few entertainers before or since,” it says in his inductee biography.
“As a solo performer, he has enjoyed a level of superstardom previously known only to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.”
It was at Motown where MJ first bared his young soul and was set on his path to becoming the biggest pop star of our time. He died at age 50, much too young, on June 25, 2009. He is loved, he is missed. He is Forever, Michael.
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