Don McLean’s mention of 'The Day The Music Died' (from “American Pie”) refers to February 3, 1959: the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper died in a plane crash outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.
Unfortunately, June 25 2009 serves as another unofficial reference to that verse: the death of the The King of Pop.
Last weekend, radio stations across America played Michael’s greatest hits; I thought it would be nice to do something different. Instead of Michael’s chart-toppers, we’ll instead look at some of his lesser-known recordings.
I believe Michael Jackson’s career can be summarized in two chapters: pre 1979 and post 1979 (or as non-music aficionados would reference it – pre Off the Wall and post Off the Wall). Part One of this blog series will focus on the pre 1979 era, where Michael primarily recorded with his brothers and was backed by the machinery of Motown (and later Epic).
Motown had a stable of writers and producers to work with Michael - most notably The Corporation (Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell) and Hal Davis. Motown scored a string of hits with Michael Jackson, both as a solo artist, and recording with the Jackson 5: “I Want You Back”, “The Love You Save”, “ABC”, “I’ll Be There”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Sometimes missed, however, are quality recordings that were never released as singles.
Motown took the Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round” and tweaked the lyrics to fit the baby-voiced Michael Jackson. While not as resonant as the original, Michael’s take is refreshing. His bubble-gum-pop voice actually gives the song a child-like innocence.
I first heard “If I Don’t Love You This Way” on Mary J. Blige’s Love & Life album. Her version is basically a line by line cover of the original, which was released on the Jackson 5’s Dancing Machine. Leon Ware (also the songwriter of the hit “I Wanna Be Where You Are”) crafted an airy ballad that fit Michael’s now-teenaged voice perfectly.
“One Day In Your Life” was recorded in 1974, but not released as a single until 1981 (to piggyback on Epic’s success with Off The Wall). Though Michael was a teenager at the time of the recording, the melancholy lyrics make him sound years older.
By 1976, The Jackson 5 (minus Jermaine) had moved to Epic and re-branded themselves as The Jacksons (with youngest brother Randy joining the group). Produced by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, The Jacksons album had the ‘Philadelphia Soul’ sound (funky horns, lush strings) of other Gamble and Huff produced artists, such as the O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, MFSB, and Teddy Pendergrass.
The underated “Strength of One Man” gets a double dose of philly soul (due to the songwriting duo McFadden and Whitehead). The chorus has a grittiness unheard of (at that time) from Michael Jackson; a grittiness that he would explore in later tracks such as “Dirty Diana”).
Part Two on Wednesday!