Michael Jackson is a musical genius. After selling more than 100 million units during a 30-year career, single-handedly changing the game for aspiring “Pop Stars” with his unprecedented commercial run during the 1980s, and helping to define the high-end of music video aesthetics, it is perhaps easy to forget the brilliance of the man’s music. Whether on classics such as “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, and “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough”, or lesser regarded gems like “Remember the Time”, “Heart Break Hotel” (now “This Place Hotel”) with The Jacksons or the recent “Butterflies”, the essence of Michael Jackson’s genius has been in the boy’s uncanny ability to perform, even the mundane, outside of the box. The now signature (and increasingly cliché) coos, slurs, and shivers that mark the vocal performance of the “grown” Jackson often overshadows what was his uncanny ability as a boy to sing so old and so wise.
In what was an otherwise brutal critical assault on the “Man in the Mirror”, even Greg Tate admits that “part of the tyke’s appeal was being able to simulate being lost in the hot sauce way before he was supposed to know what the hot sauce even smelt like.”(Village Voice, 1987) It is this Michael Jackson — the baby boy coming up in the world of television cameras, photo shoots for Right On magazine and a virtual nation of wannabes and groupies — that is prominently featured in the collection Love Songs. The collection features obscure Jackson performances as the co-lead of The Jackson Five and his initial solo outings for Motown during the group’s years with the label (1968-1975).
The Jackson Five phenomenon began in the fall of 1969 with the release of their first Motown single “I Want You Back” (they had some regional singles in the Midwest before signing with the label). The single was the first of what would be four consecutive number one singles — the others were “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”. But it was the B-side of the first single that perhaps really established the presence of the vocalist Michael Jackson.
As he lead vocalist on those first J5 singles, Jackson was cute as the “shortie mack” singing yearningly and lovingly lyrics like “Oh baby give me one more chance (to show you that I love you) / Won’t you please let me, back to your heart / Oh darling I was blind to let you go (to let you go baby).” And for damn sure he could plead James Brown-style (“Please, Please, Please”) as he does during the break-down section of “I Want You back” (“All I want, all I need / All I want, all I need!!”).
But on “Who’s Lovin’ You”, the B-side of “I Want You Back”, the little shortie was singing like a man, so much so that he forever (in my humble opinion) jacked the song from its author, Smokey Robinson. When Terrance Trent Darby recorded the song on his debut The Hardline According . . . (1987) and En Vogue tagged the song to the intro of their debut single “Hold On” (1990) it was clear that Jackson’s version was the reference point. In his version the then 10-year old Jackson sings the opening line “W-h-e-n I had you . . .” like he had been living on Beale Street for 40 years. And then when he gets to the bridge singing “life without love . . .” pausing intuitively with an empathic “huh”, as if the 10-year-old CHILD knew what the hell he was talking about, it was clear that it was a brand-new day in pop music and the Afroed shortie from Gary, Indiana was going to preside over it. Jackson would also show such aplomb on his February 1970 version of Ray Charles’ “A Fool for You” which was issued for the first time of the recent J-5 box set SoulSation! (1995).
The story of the J5’s rise to fame is well-known, including the fictional “discovery” of them by Diana Ross. They legitimately (and there is really no debate about this) are the template for the whole tradition of boy-bands whether witnessed in The Osmonds’ straight-heist of The J5 sound on “One Bad Apple”, sound-alike groups like “Chee Chee and Pee Pee”, and The Sylvers, and the emergence of the Beantown groups New Edition and New Kids on the Block in the 1980s. Despite the J5’s talent, Berry Gordy and Suzanne De Passe understood that in the world of teen-pop, be it the J5, David Cassidy and a host of others, acts had a short shelf-life. Following their initial hit run from 1969-1972, the group The Jackson Five would not have any major commercial successes until the release of the single “Dancing Machine” in 1974, when the group was finally able to develop an “adult” sound.
Thus two years after the release of “I Want You Back”, Michael Jackson’s first solo track “Got to Be There” dropped in October of 1971. The title track and lead single, remains one of the young Jackson’s most striking performances as he had by then developed a keen sense of phrasing as witnessed on the lyric “Cause when I look in her eyes, I-I realize, I need her sharing the world beside me / so I got to be there.” The album Got to Be There (January 1972), also featured the lilting ballad “Fly on the Wings of My Love”, which is about as middle-of-the-road as any black recording act could have been in the 1970s, save Charley Pride and Sammy Davis, Jr. The song remains one of the guilty treats of Jackson’s catalogue of recordings and a thoughtful inclusion to the Love Songs collection.
Got to Be There was followed in the summer on 1972 with the album Ben. The cover-art of the album featured a photo of the most famous rat in pop culture (if you don’t include industry types). The title track, which is thankfully not included on the Love Songs collection, would become Jackson’s first number one pop solo performance. The song was of course the theme to the film Ben (1972), which was a much more innocuous sequel to the film Willard (1971), which elevated the fear of rats to a national obsession in the way that Jaws heighten the fear of sharks. The lead single from Ben “I Wanna Be Were You Are” was backed by the sweet “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going”. The song was prominently featured in one of those classic ABC After School specials from the mid-’70s. Also collected on Love Songs, from Jackson’s Ben recording is the bluesy “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”.
Like the fortunes of The Jackson Five, the first stage of “Michaelmania” would subside after the release of Ben. Though his follow-up recording Music and Me (1973) and Forever Michael (1975) are notable because they mark the transition of Jackson from child singer to young adult (see Jackson’s accomplished vocals on “All I Do” from the J5’s last studio album for Motown, Moving Violations as an example). This is particularly the case with Forever Michael — the title itself a reference to his impending adulthood — where Jackson presents the germs of the vocal style that would mark his solo successes in the 1980s and beyond. Though the dance-oriented “Just a Little Bit of You” was a R&B hit from Forever Michael, some of the gems of the project were the straight pop slush tracks on the project. Love Songs features three of those tracks, “You Are There”, “I’ll Come Home to You” and the exquisite “One Day in Your Life”. The latter song, which was eventually issued as a single by Motown in 1981, (to take advantage of the post-Off the Wall era of “Micahelmania,” some six years after Jackson and brothers had bolted the label for Epic), begins with haunting harmonica lines which bleed into Jackson’s supple vocals. The song is an example of the kinds of choices Jackson would make later in his career with tracks like “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Man in the Mirror” and “Lady in My Life”.
Love Songs also includes alternative versions of “I’ll Be There” (The Third Album, 1970) and “Maybe Tomorrow” (Maybe Tomorrow, 1971), the latter of which was recorded live in-studio without the overdubbed string arrangements that made the more well known version of the track such a striking performance by the group. Love Songs is not a definitive collection of the young Michael Jackson, but a thoughtful collection of some of his most overtly romantic tracks. When critics and fans try to put the current “King of Pop” in perspective, it would do them well to check out this collection and remember Jackson when he was an icon in the making and an artist of some significance.