By Joel Francis
Before Michael Jackson was the King of Pop or Wacko Jacko he was little Michael, the adorable child singer for the Jackson 5. Michael and his brothers were the final star group to come out of Hitsville U.S.A. Their career bridges the gap between Motown’s glory days in Detroit and its descent to becoming just another record label in Los Angeles.
Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and all the other tween pop stars with arena tours and television shows would be nothing today without the groundwork Michael and the Jackson 5 laid in the early ‘70s. Motown founder Berry Gordy was among the first businessmen to recognize how lucrative the tweener market could be. He marketed the Jackson 5 to fans the same age as the performers. Black or white, young Americans tried to imitate the dance moves and routines they saw on the Ed Sullivan Show, network television specials and even the band’s own Saturday morning cartoon.
Like that other brilliant piece of musical marketing, the Monkees, the Jackson 5 didn’t write their own material. Holland-Dozier-Holland may have departed, but Gordy was able to round up another ad hoc songwriting team to write material for the teen sensations. Anonymously dubbed “The Corporation” so other labels wouldn’t steal them away from Motown, the team was responsible for “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save,” “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Sugar Daddy” to name but a few of their J5 hits.
The music may have been marketed to tweens, but it more than holds up today. The titles alone of the aforementioned songs should be enough for smiles to spread on most faces. Don’t worry if they don’t, though. After a few bars have played, they will jolt the rest of the way into your consciousness, making you involuntarily start tapping your feet and grooving along with the happy rhythms.
In 1972, 14-year-old Michael started cutting his own records for Motown. His early solo hits include “Got to Be There,” a cover of “Rockin’ Robin.” Michael’s first No. 1 solo hit was the title song to the film “Ben.” The movie may have been about a boy and his pet rat (Ben was the rat, of course), but Michael’s song was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Jackson’s biggest moment occurred when he was no longer on the Motown label, but front and center on Motown’s stage. In 1983 a television special was shot in Los Angeles celebrating 25 years of Motown records. Many of the label’s biggest hits reunited or returned to pay tribute to Berry Gordy and Hitsville, U.S.A. After performing with his brothers as the Jackson 5 for the first time in eight years, Michael took the stage himself to perform his new song “Billie Jean” and debut the dance step that defined the ‘80s – the moonwalk.
That iconic moment helped propel Michael’s career to unfathomable heights, but his music was never as fresh, fun and invigorating as it was before. As the decade fell away, Michael fell into parody and a host of other well-known problems.
But forget about all of that. Tonight, celebrate the kid who couldn’t stop smilin’, dancin’ and singin’ in front of those day-glo bell bottoms and beret-topped afros. Remember Michael for his best years on Motown.