Me and Michael ~ A Contextual Backdrop
Unlike many fans, who were weaned on his Thriller video or thrilled by his historical Motown 25 Moonwalk, my interest in Michael Jackson came later in life, later in my life not his, for he was gone too soon to have a “later in life.” My interest in his life was initiated by his death. It was on June 25th, 2009 that I was whisked into the amazing world of Michael Joseph Jackson, the world of his music, his life story, his eccentricities, his family of origin and his children. I will tell you that since that fateful and tragic day, I have professed an undying love and compassion for him. I have entered the Neverland of L.O.V.E, and consider myself as true and devoted a Michael Jackson fan as any there was!
I am a product of the 60′s. My adolescence sparked on a Sunday night in 1963 when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The shaggy mop-tops looked wild in contrast to the clean-cut style of The Chieftains, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and, even, Elvis. Never had the world seen the likes of them! The Fab Four ushered in a new paradigm. When The Rolling Stones hit the scene the following year, they appeared rough and gruff by comparison. Mick Jagger distracted us from the sweet, longing trills of the Fabs’ “Please, Please Me” when his crude and insatiable hunger pangs couldn’t get no “Satisfaction.”
The days of Woody Guthrie and Newport Folk began to morph in 1965, when Dylan shocked the audience by plugging in his guitar onstage. Pete Seeger was outraged, and had to be physically restrained from the amplifiers. The new electric sounds heralded the pop festivals, love-ins and live concerts aplenty. That same year Country Joe McDonald penned words and melody to the atrocities happening in Vietnam. My favorite tunes were as numerous as the seasons turning round and round. Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Joan Baez gracefully made the transition from folk to pop, while others like Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield transformed blues to rock. Crosby, Stills and Nash thrilled us with their signature harmonies and socially relevant lyrics. I grooved at live concerts where the likes of Led Zeppelin, Cream and The Grateful Dead brought the house down. The back of John Sebastian’s neck got dirty and gritty up on the rooftop with The Lovin’ Spoonful; and while Steppenwolf wove a Magic Carpet Ride, Grace Slick took flight in The Jefferson Airplane looking for somebody to love. I was poised to follow Donovan’s instruction to wear my love like heaven, and felt compassion when George Harrison’s guitar gently wept. In contrast to previous singers and songwriters, these rock musicians were the political spokespeople of our youth, the popular voices. I listened, learned, lived and loved.
I find it a fascinating reflection that, in the midst of the psychedelic rock and anti-war fervor, Motown Records offered a different sound and a refreshing feeling as opposed to the electrifying shrills of Jimi Hendrix. From it’s inception in 1959, at the height of the civil rights movement, and continuing through the Sixties, Motown produced an invariably rich catalog of songs. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me, Heat Wave, Dancing in the Street, Where Did Our Love Go, My Guy, My Girl, Baby Love, Reach Out, I Can’t Help Myself, Get Ready, Stop! In the Name of Love and The Way You Do the Things You Do thrived right along side the theme songs of the hippie revolution. Music charts through the second half of the Sixties attest to the fact that the hits came in equally from both camps. The classic Motown Sound echoed from the voices of Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Marvin Gaye. They sang simple love songs that told simple stories. Motown songs had catchy melodies accompanied by tambourines, blaring horns, driving bass lines and foot-stomping drum beats. The lead singer and backup vocalists often ‘talked’ to one another creating harmonies that were either happy or heartbreaking.
Why no Michael mentioned above? So where is Michael during this hay-day?
It was in 1963, the same year The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, that little Michael Jackson debuted in the Garnett Elementary School Kindergarten program. Michael’s solo rendition of Climb Every Mountain shocked the socks off not only his parents, but the entire audience, and drew a standing ovation. In a 2001 interview with TV Guide, Michael was asked, “Do you remember the first time you ever stepped onstage?” to which he replied, “I was 5 years old. And it was at a public school recital. We had to wear white shirts and short knickers. And I remember them saying, ‘Little Michael Jackson is coming up to sing ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ I got the biggest applause. When I went to my seat my grandfather and mother were crying. They said, ‘[We] can’t believe how beautiful you sound.’ That’s the first one I remember.”
Let me pause, and invite you to watch a short excerpt from the 1992 television miniseries called The Jacksons: An American Dream. The movie is based on a 1992 autobiography titled My Family, written by Michael’s mother, Katherine. This clip portrays little Michael performing his well-remembered Climb Every Mountain.
Soon after his 1963 Kindergarten “debut,” Michael’s father Joe Jackson, who had his children address him as “Joseph,” put his little son in the family’s fledgling band, replacing brother Jermaine as lead singer. Joe practiced his boy band rigorously, literally “cracking the whip” to keep their music and dance routines continually improving. Much was demanded of Michael who worked willingly and very hard during those early beginnings. After 3 or 4 years of strip club gigs and a variety singing contests, the Jackson 5 began to perform professionally in black adult nightclubs in Chicago, and around the U.S. This string of clubs was, and still is, known as the “chitlin’ circuit.” The Jackson 5 got their lucky break in August of 1967 by winning an Amateur Night competition at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City. This win impressed Motown Records artist Gladys Knight who, in turn, recommended the group to Motown chief Berry Gordy. Interestingly, around this same time The Jackson 5 had gotten a record deal with a local Gary, Indiana company, SteelTown Records and began recording songs.
(This entry is a work in progress…check back often!)
Note to myself: Put in HTML