To say that the Jackson 5’s formula was successful would be a terrific understatement. Three upbeat, bubblegum hits, all penned and produced by Berry Gordy and his faceless Corporation, all No. 1 pop and R&B smashes.
Gordy’s decision to break from the formula for the group’s fourth hit was shocking. Not known as one to mess with a sure thing, Gordy dumped the Corporation and partnered with Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob Wests to craft a ballad that placed Michael Jackson directly the spotlight, and relegated his brothers to a support role.
The result was the J5’s most successful single ever, selling 4 million copies in the United States and cementing the band’s career beyond bubblegum. “I’ll Be There” was also the group’s last No. 1 hit; three more singles ceilinged at No. 2.
Only 12 years old at the time, Jackson dumps more emotion into his delivery than many singers twice his age possess. His clarion call to give love another chance is graceful and penetrating. Gordy positioned Diana Ross as the J5’s mentor – her influence shines in Jackson’s delivery, both in phrasing and tone.
“I’ll Be There” was covered by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz as a duet in 1992. The single was her sixth No. 1 hit, but the less said about her treacly reading the better. More interestingly, it appeared on the fourth album by Southern California punk rockers Me First and the Gimme Gimmes in 2003, who frequently recorded ironic covers. “I’ll Be There” graced two other Motown releases. The Temptations recorded a version for their 2006 album “Reflections” and sister La Toya Jackson cut it for her 1995 covers album. Many artists, including Carey, the New Kids on the Block, Jaime Foxx and Ne-Yo and Green Day performed “I’ll Be There” in tribute to Jackson after his death on June 25, 2009.
Michael Jackson performed “I’ll Be There” on all of his solo tours, frequently getting emotional and breaking down mid-song.
Three days after Michael Jackson’s death, Jamie Foxx appeared as host of the BET Awards clad in a red leather, Thriller-era jacket and sequined glove. After performing “Beat It” and telling a few jokes about Jackson’s ever-changing nose, Foxx paid tribute to the fallen icon by moonwalking across the stage.
And when Foxx performs a concert at the Sprint Center on Saturday, Jackson again will have his moment.
“We definitely do a Michael Jackson moment at our shows and let his music play,” Foxx said in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the media’s Michael Jackson coverage has become a circus. We try to concentrate on what he gave us — his music.”
After walking the tightrope of poking fun at Jackson without offending, Foxx closed out the BET Awards with a duet of “I’ll Be There” with Ne-Yo. After the pair finished, Jackson’s sister Janet and father, Joe, came out and thanked everyone for their support.
“My job that night was to keep things light, keep things fun,” Foxx said. “Having the family there was tough, because I wanted to be respectful and I knew Janet was going to come out at the end. I have to commend BET, though. They had to do an awards show when the biggest entertainer in the world passes away. With very little money and very little time, they completely turned the show around.”
When Foxx last played Kansas City at the Music Hall in March, 2007, he was best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles and parodying that character on the hit single “Gold Digger” with Kanye West. For this tour, Foxx has the success and chops under his belt to prove that he’s not just another actor living out a fantasy as a musician.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned since the last tour is that you should go out while your record is hot, not wait two years,” Foxx said, remembering his 2005 hit “Unpredictable,” which he didn’t promote until 2007. “Right now, this very moment, ‘Blame It’ is still rolling (on the charts). It’s sizzling.”
When Stevie Wonder played Starlight Theatre recently, he stopped the show for a few minutes to have the soundman pump his favorite song this year through the PA. Within moments, the crowd that had been grooving to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Living for the City” was grinding to Foxx’s “Blame It.”
Even without the endorsements, “Blame It” is one of the unofficial songs of the summer. It topped the Urban Contemporary charts for 12 consecutive weeks and as of mid-July it had been in the Top 40 for 26 weeks.
Like many of the previous summertime hits, “Blame It” gets a boost from the ubiquitous T-Pain. He won’t be at the Sprint Center, but Foxx said audiences won’t miss T-Pain or any of the other artists that appear on his albums.
“For those songs with features, I have guys who sing those parts, so we don’t miss a step,” Foxx said. “My back-up singer does a great job performing T-Pain’s part. It’s a lot of fun, but it also taught me another lesson: Don’t lean on your features too heavily when recording, so you can still do them alone on tour.”
Before Foxx was an Oscar-winning actor or a comedian on “In Living Color” and “Def Comedy Jam,” he was a musician. Foxx started taking piano lessons at age 5 and released his first album in 1994. It took 11 years and an appearance on Twista’s “Slow Jamz” — again with West — before Foxx released a follow-up album.
When he began performing as a musician on the big stage, Foxx drew on his experiences as an actor and comedian.
“Through playing live I learned how to pace myself,” Foxx said. “I learned I could take my time with a slow song. As a comedian, I am always looking for a reaction. But when you sing a slow song, you don’t need an immediate reaction. Sometimes people want to take it all in before they respond. I don’t need to go all over the stage to make sure they like it.”
Whatever the tempo, Foxx pulls on his acting background and treats each song as if he’s playing a character. Upbeat songs get a character who knows how to party and have fun, Foxx said.
“When it’s time for slower music, I change clothes and put on a suit,” he said. “For ‘Blame It,’ I wear a sparkly jacket, because that’s what I felt that character would wear. Everything’s always a character.”
Foxx appeared as a different kind of musician earlier this year. In the movie “The Soloist,” he portrayed a homeless, schizophrenic, classically trained cellist. Don’t look for that character to appear onstage.
“No more cello for me,” Foxx said. “I just play piano.”
the show Jamie Foxx and his 50-city “Intuition Tour” come to Kansas City at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Sprint Center. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $59.75 and $69.75 at www.ticketmaster.com.
(Above: Stevie Wonder performs “Never Can Say Goodbye” the day after Michael Jackson’s death. Wonder dedicated his performance at Starlight Theater to Jackson.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Stevie Wonder walked on stage at Starlight Theatre on Friday night with zero fanfare and cut to the heart of the night before playing a single note.
“God blessed us with a talented man who brought us joy with his dancing, music, videos and all of that,” Wonder said as part of his five-minute monologue about his friend and former Motown labelmate Michael Jackson.
Finally settling behind his grand piano, Wonder delivered a powerful acapella performance of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” that gave me goosebumps. After two verses, the band joined in. When the song was over, Wonder led them into a spontaneous version of “Kansas City” that caught most of the musicians off-guard.It was that kind of night. The mood altered between moving tributes to Jackson, who died the day before, upbeat hits and random moments.
It took Wonder a half hour to get the nearly sold-out crowd on its feet. Once “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” finally did the trick, Wonder ensured they stayed up by playing the signature bassline to “Billie Jean.” With no vocal support from the stage, Wonder let the crowd sing the entire song.
The audience did a good job at impromptu karoke the first time around, but was less successful in carrying “I Can’t Help It.” Wonder has good reason to be proud of the song he wrote for Jackson that ended up on his “Off the Wall” album, but few in the audience were familiar with the number.
The crowd did better on Wonder’s classic material. “All I Do,” “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” all drew big responses.
Later in the set, Wonder led the band through a jam with his vocoder. Safe behind the distortion of this electronic vocal altering device, Wonder was surprisingly honest.
“Last night and today I was in so much pain,” Wonder said, “but I knew if I played for you I would play a little better.”
Still employing the vocoder, Wonder segued into the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The poignant moment was made even more mournful by the vocal alteration and Wonder’s decision to let a male backing singer take the final verse. Emotions built as Wonder led the crowd through the chorus again and again, turning the song into a remembrance and a celebration.
Wonder was backed by a 14-piece band that included four backing vocalists – including his daughter Aisha Morris – two percussionists, keyboard players and guitarist and a rhythm and horn section.
Given his orchestrations on record, it was no surprise the band arrangements were sublime. The ensemble knew the right moments to back off and give Wonder the spotlight and the right time to come in and kick the performance up a notch. As usual, the sound at Starlight was great.
After the South American syncopation of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Wonder paused for a moment behind the keyboard. Playing a gorgeous piece of music, he started humming and mumbling until the words congealed into stream-of-consciousness thoughts about Jackson being “in the arms of God.” The energy from this moving melody was poured into an amazing reading of “You and I” that found Wonder showing of his vocal range and its resilience to time and age.
Randomness struck again in the last 30 minutes of the night when Wonder had his sound man play Jamie Foxx and T-Pain’s “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” over the PA while he rested his throat and the band hydrated. That was followed by a jazz number performed by Wonder’s daughter. The song was pleasant, but not what folks came to hear.
Two other shortcomings also bear mention. The only time Wonder played harmonica was during a cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain.” His solo brief solo there was both a tease and a crime. Also, Wonder’s ‘60s catalog was completely ignored. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” from 1970 was as far back as Wonder went for the night, which meant “Uptight,” “Hey Love,” “My Cherie Amor” and others were forgotten.
Wonder ended the night with the murderer’s row of “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” “Sir Duke,” “Superstition” and “As” that more than erased any minor missteps. As the final notes of “As” died out, the strains of “ABC” faded in. The Jackson 5 number kicked off a pre-recorded medley of Wonder’s favorite Jackson moments.
As the tape played, everyone remained onstage dancing, singing along and brushing away stray tears. Two hours and 20 minutes after taking the stage, Wonder and his band filed slowly offstage as “Man in the Mirror” played. There was no encore, but there was nothing left to say.
Setlist: Love’s In Need of Love Today, Going to Kansas City> Bird of Beauty> As If You Read My Mind> Master Blaster (Jammin’), Billie Jean, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me> All I Do, I Can’t Help It, Vocoder Jam> Never Can Say Goodbye > Higher Ground, Spain> Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Improvised MJ tribute> You and I, Living For the City, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Blame It (On the Alcohol) (Jamie Foxx and T-Pain song played over PA), I’m Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life (Aisha Morris, lead vocals), Sir Duke> Superstition, As, Michael Jackson medley (played over PA)