Note: For MJ's birthday, I've re-posted part 1 and 2 of a series I wrote in July.
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 One of this series focused on Michael's lesser known recordings prior to 1979's Off The Wall. Part Two covers 1979 through 2001's Invincible.
After Off The Wall dropped, Michael went back to work with his brothers, collaborating on 1980’s Triumph (which, in my opinion, is the best Jacksons/Jackson 5 album). By this point, the brothers were writing their own music, scoring hits with “Can You Feel It” and “This Place Hotel”. Oftern overlooked is the ballad “Time Waits For No One”… or as I call it, “She’s Out Of My Life, But With Balls”. Great writing by Jackie and Randy.
We all know everything there is to know about 1982’s Thriller… “Beat It” paved the way for black music on MTV… the moonwalk… the sequin glove…the eight Grammys… how 7 of the 9 tracks were charted in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (and “Lady In My Life”, one of the two tracks not released as a single, would have easily been another Top 10). So given than, I’m giving love to often forgotten “Baby Be Mine”, which is a strong track, but gets overshadowed by other juggernauts. It's a classic Rod Temperton/Quincy Jones collaboration; in fact, one could argue that "Baby Be Mine" fits better on Off The Wall versus Thriller. Regardless, its a nice jam.
No one, absolutely no one, could top Thriller, but Michael did his damnest with Bad. Like Thriller, the track we’re highlighting is the only track not released as a single: the Steve Wonder duet “Just Good Friends”. Though not as impactful as previous MJ/Steve collaborations (notably “I Can’t help It”), it’s still a solid track.
2001’s Invincible was seen as a disappointment (though there were some great songs – like "Butterflies" and "Break Of Dawn"). My favorite track from this album is Michael’s collaboration with Carlos Santata – the Spanish-tinged “Whatever Happens”. Too bad it wasn’t released as a single… I think it could have charted (given the popularity of 1999’s "Smooth").
Hope you enjoyed the music. Check 'em out, and if you like them, buy the tracks on iTunes or Amazon. Rest In Peace, Michael.