Saturday, July 04, 2009

Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009)

I did not like the way Berry Gordy Jr. was portrayed in the movie "Dreamgirls". Of course he is not perfect, but who among us is? To me Mr. Gordy is a role model in spite of his perceived shortcomings. In the early days of Rock 'n' Roll most African-American performers were ripped off. They didn't receive just compensation for their work and also had stolen royalties. Two early pioneers who attempted to right this wrong were Berry Gordy Jr. and Sam Cooke, the first successful African-American owners of record companies with national (and later world-wide) distribution. Cooke understood the meaning of entrepeneurship. He wrote, produced and performed most of his songs and through his record company S.A.R he had many entertainers who became stars after his death(Bobby Womack, Billy Preston, Johnnie Taylor, Mel Carter). Cooke's death was very suspicious. He was disliked by many in the business because he was perceived as too "uppity" for a Black man of his time. After Cooke's demise Berry Gordy came to the forefront. Gordy went to the assembly line approach he saw while working for GM and applied it to making records. Just as the car companies had assembly lines for various parts of the cars that in the end all came together to have the finished product, Gordy did the same with his artists. There were teams of producers that worked with specific songwriters and performers who collectively came up with the finished product.
The most prominent songwriter/producer teams in the early days of Motown were
William "Mickey" Stevenson, William "Smokey" Robinson, Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Edward Holland, Nicholas Ashford-Valerie Simpson, Harvey Fuqua, Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong, Pam Sawyer and Ronald Miller. They created and produced music for some of the most successful acts of all time.....Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Miracles, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Jr. Walker & The All Stars, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Martha & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Jimmy Ruffin, Shorty Long, Marv Johnson, Kim Weston, The Isley Brothers, Brenda Holloway and a group of teenagers from Gary, Indiana...The Jackson 5, lead by this little 10 year old afro clad dynamo named Micheal Jackson. It is not clear who should get credit for discovering Michael and his brothers...Bobby Taylor?, Diana Ross?, Gladys Knight? but Michael was a rare find and Gordy knew just what to do to bring these very young men to absolute stardom.
Berry Gordy found the major portion of his talent coming from residents of a Detroit housing project. Motown was so successful that when The Temptations peaked at
#29 with the Smokey Robinson penned "Get Ready" Motown top brass decided that this was unacceptable. At that time if any black entertainer was able to crossover and get a tune in the top 40 of the pop chart that was considered a major accomplishment but that wasn't good enough for Motown, so Temptations production went from Smokey Robinson to Norman Whitfield. In the case of the Jackson Five, Gordy decided that he will handle this one himself. He chose his collaborators to form "The Corporation" and then went on to give The Jackson 5 four straight pop and R&B #1 songs(I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, I'll Be There) and two #2 pop songs( Mama's Pearl, Never Can Say Goodbye). The Jackson 5 had now reached world wide acceptance and acclaim.
At this time Motown was at the top of the music world but that in itself caused problems. It became harder and harder to keep everyone happy. Once you made a name for yourself at Motown it was considered a risk to leave, a risk that most Motown performers were not willing to take. Mary Wells, was Motown's first lady. She left and never regained the popularity she once had: eleven top 40 hits (including #1 My Guy, but only one away from Motown (Use Your Head #34). This all changed in 1969 when the Isley Brothers left Motown to form their own T-Neck label and immediately had smash hit "It's Your Thing" (#2 Pop, #1 R&B) and later went on to have twelve other top forty hits on the pop chart. This no doubt went on to embolden other Motown stars to make that move. The assembly line that was responsible for so many Motown hits had disintegrated. Major producer/writer teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland not only left but sued Berry Gordy over royalties. Both Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye wanted more creative control. Gladys Knight & The Pips went to Buddah Records and had even more success with Buddah than they had at Motown.The Spinners left to find stardom at Atlantic records. The Temptations went to Atlantic Records also for a brief stint but Berry Gordy was successful in wooing them back. Even Diana Ross left to sign with RCA records. Fortunately for Motown they were able to keep Stevie Wonder by offering him a huge long term contract. Marvin Gaye, like Stevie Wonder was granted creative control and stayed for several years, but in the early 80s he also left. The Commodores, Rick James, Lionel Richie and a resurgeant Smokey Robinson (with four big hits in the eighties (Cruisin', Being With You, Just To See Her,One Heartbeat)also kept Motown alive and kicking.
The Jackson 5 were also unhappy with the material they were given. It appeared as if their requests to perform their own songs or at minimum have someone else write better songs for them fell on deaf ears. Michael and his brothers left Motown to sign with CBS/Columbia/Sony. Legendary R&B songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff took over production. During this period The Jackson 5 became The Jacksons and they found success with songs like Enjoy Yourself(#6 pop), Shake Your Body(Down To The Ground)(#7 pop) but there were still more moves in the making. Michael decides to go solo. He had performed and recorded by himself previously with Motown with great success ( Ben (#1 pop) Got To Be There (#4 pop), Rockin' Robin (#2 pop), I Wanna Be Where You Are (#16 pop). But this time Michael wanted to be a solo act on a permanent basis. Michael made a historic appearance on the televised Motown Special. We saw a totally different Michael tall and thin with the sequined black jacket as he introduced the platinum selling Billy Jean (#1 pop) and showed some startling choreography (The moonwalk) this was the moment Michael made the transition from "star" to "mega superstar" The hits were seemingly endless...Don't Stop ('til You Get Enough)(#1 pop), Rock With You (#1 pop), Off The Wall (#10 pop), She's Out Of My Life (#10 pop), The Girl Is Mine (with Paul McCartney)(#2 pop), Beat It (#1 pop), Wanna Be Startin' Something (#5 pop), Human Nature (#7 pop), Say, Say, Say (with Paul McCartney)(#1 pop), PYT(Pretty Young Thing)(#10 pop), Thriller (#4 pop), I Just Can't Stop Loving You(with Siedah Garrett) (#1 pop), Bad (#1 pop), The Way You Make Me Feel (#1 pop),Man In The Mirror (#1 pop), Dirty Diana (#1 pop), Another Part Of Me (#11 pop), Smooth Criminal (#7 pop), Black Or White (#1 pop), Remember The Time (#3 pop), In The Closet (#6 pop), Jam (#26 pop), Heal The World (#27 pop), Who Is it? (#14 pop), Will You Be There (#7 pop), Scream (with Janet Jackson)/Childhood(#5 pop),You Are Not Alone (#1 pop), They Don't Care About Us (#30 pop), You Rock My World (#10 pop), Butterflies (#14 pop).
Prior to this enormous popularity and record breaking sales Michael went through some growing pains. There are very few child stars who successfully make the trasition to successful adult star. Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Blake and Jackie Coogan are the exceptions not the rule. The public is in general very fickle, but at the same time they have an image of you and they want to keep that image. Michael was no longer that cute little boy who lead the Jackson 5, he was becoming an adult. The look was changing, the voice was changing. As a result people around him began to criticize him in a playful manner, even going so far as to say he looked like a monkey. This accounts for the numerous plastic surgeries that continued to alter his appearance. Michael apparently took this personally. This coupled with Michael declaring that he suffered from vitiligo, a disease that causes unnatural lightening of the skin made Michael an object of criticism. Many people now felt that Michael was ashamed of being what he was.....black.
As if these problems weren't enough Michael was burned badly while shooting a commercial for Pepsi. The soft drink giant dropped Michael as a spokesman when Michael was accused of improper behavior with minors. I was a big fan of Michael's but at the time I was saying if he is actually guilty of this then he deserves to serve time. I also remember Phil Collins saying that he knew Michael and that he knew that Michael would never do anything to hurt a child. Michael may be a bit too trusting and too naive, but never would he do anything to morally damage a child. Collins' statement was very convincing to me since he was someone who was in the entertainment business and was also getting world-wide attention. The papparazzi and
sensationalist newspapers like the New York Post were having a field day at Jackson's
expense referring to him as "Jacko", "Wacko" and "Child Molester".
Michael was accused of child molestation on more than one occasion. He didn't help himself by admitting on national television that he slept with little boys at night.Some members of the press took this as a golden opportunity to sink Michael's career. Jackson meant exactly what he said "SLEEPING and that's all" Several of these young boys testified in his behalf. Of course this wasn't a good thing to do and it did show poor judgment but it was not criminal. Michael's other problem was to believe that money can solve everything. More money to silence accusers only led to even more money being requested. Michael was found innocent in both trials, but the tabloids continued to bother him. The first Michael Jackson song that came to my head after hearing about his untimely death was "Leave Me Allow" which he composed specifically to strike back at the press. Now that he is gone these same newspapers write glowing articles but while he was alive they tormented him. This is exactly the same thing that happened to Martin Luther King.
With all the hundreds of millions that he earned for himself and others Michael to the end was politically aware. He labelled former RCA and current Columbia/Sony record executive Tommy Mattola a racist because of his refusal to promote his African-American artists. Many of Michael's songs were political and showed a genuine concern for the have-nots of the world...."Heal The World", "We Are The World", "Man In The Mirror" and especially the last song he ever sang "They Don't Care About Us".
On that fateful last day Michael, who had just signed on to do an extensive 50 city tour date in England that was to be titled the "This is it" farewell tour was in need of some rest. He wanted to be the best he could be for his fans. He was warned against taking drugs that would induce long periods of sleep but he didn't listen because he trusted those people who were supposed to be watching him in the event of any irregularity. So at the age of 50, the world loses it's greatest entertainer/philanthropist.
In 1975, The Miracles made their first ever concept album "City of Angels", the title song was one of the finalists to become the official song of Los Angeles while another song "Love Machine (Pt. 1)" made it to the top of the charts. Also on the lp was the song "My Name Is Michael" which has some paralells to Michael Jackson, but that was not the intent. Listening to that song now gives one an erie feeling.
Christine Yarian wrote in the liner notes 'Any similarity or resemblance to persons either living or dead is purely coincidental and unintentional and should not be construed otherwise" This was twenty-four years ago, what a coincidence. Yarian also writes (speaking of the character Michael in the song). "He left quietly, as he had come, returning to the land he had left behind and the memories of another time. On that day, one of the darkest in L.A., only his legacy remained: one angel more in heaven, one angel less in the "City of Angels"
Like Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Rick Nelson, Sammy Davis Jr. and many others his music will always be with us. Rest in peace Michael.

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