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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Did You Know That Michael Jackson Could Sing?

[Up-Up-Update Author’s Note: I wrote this before I had a blog, about four years ago. A lot of people have dug it up today. I don’t feel the need to change word of it just because he’s dead now. He’s been dead for thirty years, really.]

Sorta like Groundhog Day, Michael Jackson’s in the news again, same as last time, same as last time. No dangling babies or weird hejiras or court appearances in his pajamas though, it’s straight up bankruptcy this time. I doubt it. Like a guy that has a fetish for burying money in the yard, there always seems to be one more coffee can stuffed with cash he can disinter when he needs it. He needs it bad, this time, it appears. I’m not interested in Michael Jackson’s notoriety — or notoriousness, depending on which paper you read; and I wasn’t interested in it a year ago when I wrote this during his last trial, in the dock again for making all our skins crawl. And just like last year, just like last year, I ask you: Did you know Michael Jackson could sing?

6/10/05-His face, what’s left of it, is all over the news, every day. And I’m weary of it, and I don’t share everyone’s interest in him. If everything he’s accused of is false, he’s still a very scary human being. If ten percent is true, he’s a monster besides being a weirdo. And since every news outlet, blog, talk show host, drive time morning zoo radio loser, and drunk in a bar is disgorging 24/7 about him, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to bring anything fresh to the table. Or is it? Let me give it a try.

Did you know that Michael Jackson could sing?

It’s easy to forget that. He’s been busy for the last 30 years or so, first being a celebrity, then a sort of royal screwball, and then a kind of a carnival freak, then an Elephant Man wannabe, and finally John Wayne Gacy Light, or so it appears. But I assure you, I’ve heard it. He could sing.

Now you’re going to be angry with me dear reader, I’m sure of it. Because I’m going to point out that you’re mistaken if you thought he could sing because you bought “Off The Wall” and then “Thriller.” You loved his moonwalking, and overlooked his screeching falsetto, and Quincy Jones’ audio spackle distracted you from noticing that he couldn’t sing anymore. Not even a little.

Quincy Jones produced those records, and Quincy Jones is a very talented man. To a male kid growing up in the seventies, he was da man simply for marrying Peggy Lipton of the Mod Squad. Quincy warmed up by tinkering with Sinatra, after Sinatra had blown his voice out with poor method and booze and cigarettes and putting his head in ovens over Ava Gardener and couldn’t sing much anymore. Sinatra had gotten all the mileage he could from just sort of talking in a singsong way in a low register, with Nelson Riddle riding herd over the half a gross of string players sawing away behind him. Quincy coaxed one last blast of Brooklyn funk from ol’ Blue Eyes’ leather lungs by putting Count Basie behind him, and perhaps reminding him of what he used to be.

But Quincy’s magnum opus was fixing it so you didn’t notice that the greatest child soul singer, ever, couldn’t sing a lick anymore. Every bit of Quincy’s talents were needed to foist this future circus freak on the public, when the freak had nothing left in the tank but a visually disorienting dance step. And Quincy kept moving the musical cups around so you couldn’t find the little ball under the one marked “He can’t sing.” Because poor old Michael couldn’t sing a lick after his Adams Apple showed up.

Now lots of people are child singers and have long and prosperous careers after their voice drops an octave or two. Listen to Wayne Newton. You heard me. Wayne Newton. He sang Danke Shoen when he was a young teen, if that, and he sang it with the brio, and range, and emotive bluster of a world-weary and experienced Vegas singer. Which is exactly what he eventually became, god love ’em. And now, even as he becomes geriatric, he can still do it. And people still go see him, I guess, and he’s turned his uncool persona into a cottage industry, like David Hasselhoff and William Shatner and a dozen others that learned to embrace the trajectory of their careers and find a way to keep the third wife in minks, even if it involves self parody.

But it was over for Michael when his voice changed, and he knew it. And it’s probably what drove him crazy. And if Michael Jackson is anything, it’s crazy.
Perhaps you’d go crazy too, if you were given that gift, and then it was taken away from you like that. And it is a gift. Michael’s father Joe couldn’t beat that sound out of Tito or Jermaine, after all, no matter how hard he tried. Michael had it, and out it came.

Michael Jackson was made for Motown, and especially Motown for him. The entire musical edifice was there when he arrived, and he just rode the elevator right to the top floor. Berry Gordy had honed the template to an iota, and assembled the most talented and innovative studio musicians and writers together in Detroit, and later Los Angeles, and could use every bit of what the Jackson Five could deliver.

I linked to a Jackson Five compilation in the left margin. [Editor’s note: Here it is:]

Purchase that item. If you do not , your life will be a meaningless and barren wasteland, populated only by the Court TV freakshows, and not the Jackson Five’s freaky show. Because Michael was a freak. The good kind, I mean, before the bad kind. He could belt out a song or croon a ballad with the emotional intensity of an adult, the range of an opera singer, and the pure joy in life that a little boy knows. And at Motown, they knew what to do with it.

They don’t always know what to do with these gifts, you know, neither the gift’s holders or the holder’s discoverers. Ever hear Sam Cooke sing? He might be the greatest singer, of any kind, ever, and if you don’t believe me, get the soundtrack from ” The Ladykillers” and listen to him sing gospel, before he was “discovered” by Holywood. He was transcendently talented and gifted, well before two strange Knights of Columbus looking guys that had no idea what to do with his gifts signed him to a six lifetime contract, and put some syrupy strings and a bunch of people who sounded like the Ray Conniff Singers behind him. And still Sam managed to sound sublime singing pop songs like You Send Me over the noise, but just. He should have stayed in church, and he probably would have sung like that ’til this very day; instead of ending up with an underage girl for an unwilling companion, drugged up, dead and pantsless in a cheap Motel from gunshot wounds and baseball bat contusions. Which is even worse than what they did to him on those records, but just barely. Which cautions us to keep in mind Michael Jackson didn’t invent depravity either.

Where was I? Oh yes, the record. Put the needle on the vinyl, with a stack of pennies on the stylus so the dancing doesn’t make the record skip, and let it rip. What’s that? When? Oh, I see. OK, put it in the CD player.

I Want You Back. Glissando down to one bass note, courtesy of THE bass player, James Jamerson, the only genius ever in popular music. And then, it erupts a little more, then it it starts with a jerk like a motorcycle, and then hops around like a bunny, then down some steps, up a few like dancing on a staircase with Bojangles Robinson, and then the guitar, drums and every manjack in the studio joins in and the assorted Jacksons sing a nonsense riff. And then Michael chimes in, warming up like a jet on a runway, talking about schoolyard jealously, the words a trifle, not bothering to rhyme. And after the perfunctory verse, he lets it rip. He goes up to the ceiling and belts Oh! to kick off the refrain, and you realize, when you hear it in hindsight, that he couldn’t hit that note now if his life depended on it, and hasn’t even tried to for thirty years. All those breathless sounding oohs and ahs and squeals and, pardon me for using the word, breathy ejaculations he’s been using instead of singing, are the shadow of what he could do when he was just a little boy, which was sing! And here it’s just effortless, and fun, with the exclamation point at the beginning of the phrase, just to show the joy that’s in it.

There’s lots more of that ebullient and joyous singing on the compilation. Skip on down to Never Can Say Goodbye. The bass percolates all over, never really repeating itself, never really straying far either, and carrying the simple ballad on its back. And Michael swoops and soars, declaiming the lyrics perfectly, and always completely in control of the the song, and his singing. And there are those moments in the song, where you think he’ll chicken out, and drop into another register, or bail out from a note he held too long for another singer, or break the reins and run all over the place, like a bad singer singing the national anthem, but he never misses. There’s all sort of strings and flutes and aural wallpaper at the end, trying to keep up with him, but they can’t get a word in edgewise, not with that singing.

Now listen to I’ll Be There. A bevy of slatternly pop stars covered this song with melisma slime recently, and every one of their singing lessons showed through their bustiers the whole time. With Michael, there’s no heavy lifting. It’s a simple, heartfelt ballad, and his brothers sing well in the background, where they mostly belong. Michael sings it throughout with grace and verve, and knows too how to build the song, and not give away the musical store all at once. He parcels out the excitement throughout until the end, when he just launches himself into the stratosphere, and goes wherever he wants or needs to, and you know when to clap.

One of his older brothers sings counterpoint in the duet with him, bravely but insipidly, and his voice, lower and uninspired, warns us all, though we did not know it then: This is what happens, when you reach puberty. Time for plan B.

But Michael Jackson could sing. When Nixon was President.

23 Responses

  1. At first I was not amused, being a huge Off the Wall fan as a young teen, but what you say is true. At the time, Jacko was still a better singer than just about everyone else on OTW but nothing like he was as a child. You win this round . . .

  2. Holy Batcave, you’re right!
    I just thought it was a style or something, and he’d fall back on croonin’ when older. Man, what a drag that must have been, to wake up after adolescence and discover your instrument gone, like it had been stolen out of the van while you were loading up after a gig.

    (Me? No musician, I, but the lone roadie for my friend’s bad barband -as if there were any other kind- in college. One learned to stay sober for self-protection and anti-theft purposes. Not the lead singer, though. Maybe he hated singing “Ridin’ the Storm Out” as much as I hated listening to it, and drank for purely medicinal reasons.)

  3. Did that just happen? Did I change someone’s mind, no matter how trivially, by writing on the internet?

    That’s unpossible.

  4. Hell no, Sip! Changin’ minds and takin’ dog tags is what the Interweb is all about! Embrace it!

    Ah, Nixon…the William Shatner of Evil!

  5. Though I’m taking them out of context, the following lyrics that Jackson sang back in the day turn out to be prescient words, if only he had to known to listen to them:

    You better save it!
    Stop stop stop!
    You better save it!

    The love you save may be your own
    Darlin’ take it slow
    Or someday you’ll be all alone
    You better stop!
    the love you save may be your own
    Darlin’ look both ways before you cross me
    You’re headed for a danger zone.

    Oh, Michael, we never knew ye …

  6. reader you is- That’s a great song!

    When he sings:

    I’m the one that wants you !

    I’m the one you NEED!

    He goes up and gets the note for Need!, in his regular voice, no falsetto. Just hits it. It’s breathtaking for a little kid to be able to hit that. He couldn’t hit that now with a shovel.

    Who could predict “Stop you better save it” would be about DNA evidence someday?

  7. Sippican – Nail hit squarely on the head, as usual. I had cued up “I Want You Back” on the PC even before I scrolled that far in the post. As Phil Hartman playing Ed McMahon would say, “You are correct, sir!”

    And don’t forget that album cover. Michael Jackson also used to look like a normal, attractive human being, before he was rich as Croesus.

  8. Michael Jackson was a cute little kid. He looks like a monster now, literally.

    And he and I are exactly the same age. I never appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, but then again, I’ve never been led into a courthouse in my pajamas either, so I figure it’s a fair swap.

  9. Holy whatever!

    My husband was away this evening, and when he just got back I shared this post with him.

    … But Michael Jackson could sing. When Nixon was President.

    [DH, instantly and deadpan]

    “And we were still on the gold standard.”

  10. Isn’t Bob Bobbing the bassplayer on “I Want You Back” ? I don’t think it’s Jamerson atleast.

  11. Sigurder- That is a very interesting comment. I used a sort of vague reference to James Jamerson’s contribution here, the words “courtesy of” instead of “played by.” I did that for a reason. These things are obscure sometimes.

    Officially, It’s Wilton Felder playing on that Jackson Five recording. Wilton Felder is a very good bass player. But there’s more to it than that. I Want You Back is the first Jackson Five Song to be recorded in Los Angeles. They had recorded other less notable songs in Detroit before Berry Gordy moved Motown to LA. Gordy was not a stickler for giving credit to people to whom credit is due, and James Jamerson is the cardinal example of that. Gordy was trying to remove himself from any mention of Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting credit or influence.

    There is a recording of Jimmy Ruffin singing I Want You Back, before The Jackson Five, and before Motown moved to LA. And the bass player on that recording is James Jamerson.

    There is no doubt in my mind that James Jamerson wrote that bassline, and since the song is entirely based on the bassline, you could make a good argument he’s more important to its success than even Michael Jackson.

    There’s a good chance that he’s actually on the Jackson Five version, uncredited, if they were using a tape already partially recorded. If not, Wilton Felder is note for note reproducing what Jamerson played earlier.

    James Jamerson is the only person in pop music history I would term a “genius.”

    Thanks for writing. These things are endlessly interesting.

  12. Ditto on the James Jamerson "genius" appelation. Here in Detroit, we're always looking for Jamerson's famous lost bass, hoping to find it at a garage sale. As a tangential story, Anthony Jackson was actually given (shared) song writing credit on "For the love of money" by the O'Jays. And well deserved, too.

  13. thank you. now it makes sense. I never "got" MJ. And now, please help me understand what exactly "beat it" means? Thank you, from an old grannie lady

  14. I'm assuming you've heard the two disc deluxe version of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, with all the tracks stripped of vocals and remixed so you can hear Jamerson better. Amazing to think that he did it all with only one finger. Seems impossible.

  15. MJ is being over hyped he wasn't called Wacko Jacko for nothing. Thank you once again for a great posting.

  16. Maybe that's what did it to him. Where do you go from being this good at 11? What worlds were left to conquer when he was 17? Forget the personal demons, the artistic ones must have been crippling before he hit 20. And I suppose were given the decline.

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