Hail the King of Pop

Hail the King of Pop

Michael Jackson may have spent his last years mutating into an ever more freakish version Michael Jackson (1958-2009)of himself, eventually becoming a prize exhibit in the celebrity zoo, but under the outlandish surface was a singer who had come by his fame not via mere eccentricity or a stroke of luck, but through a genuinely remarkable talent that deserved to conquer the world.

For all his tragic flaws as a human being, Jackson could legitimately be seen as the greatest entertainer of his generation, the natural successor to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Soul music was the idiom from which he emerged, and disco was the vehicle that powered his solo career, but he was more than that suggests. The slender young man in spats who danced to the whip-smart rhythms of ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’, and crooned tear-stained ballads such as ‘She’s Out Of My Life’, seemed to span the modern equivalents of many timeless idioms, from vaudeville to torch songs.

First and last, however, he was a great singer. When the Jackson 5 burst on to the music scene at the beginning of the 1970s, Jackson was barely out of short trousers and his singing on ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’ and ‘The Love You Save’, their first hits, was that of a hyperactive juvenile lead. Listening to ‘I’ll Be There’, a quiet ballad that gave them their fourth hit, however, it was possible to detect the signs of something extraordinary.

His careful phrasing, and in particular his terminal vibrato, showed a maturity extraordinary for a boy barely into his teenage years.

This was around the time they came to London for the first time, on a promotional visit, including a showcase gig for selected media people at the old Talk of the Town night club in Leicester Square.

No more than a couple of dozen of us were in attendance. Soul music was not fashionable, and the Jackson 5 were thought of as a transient novelty act. I sat next to the late John Peel, and we shared looks of amazement as the group went through the fully choreographed routines of a Motown act, providing a platform on which Jackson demonstrated every ounce of the gifts and the potential that would make him, by the end of the decade, the biggest attraction in the world of showbusiness, the star of stage shows of previously unimaginable lavishness.

And that was the world in which he clearly situated himself. He loved the world of glitter and divas, of Judy Garland and Diana Ross. He was the pop star of the era of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, or ET and Star Wars, futuristic in style yet terminally sentimental in content.

For all the superficial allure of that world, however, underneath he was a musician of great creativity and acute instincts. His singing on such albums as ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’, some of the 20th century’s biggest selling and best loved records, comprised a textbook of vocal technique and character, from the breathy and fragile to the driving and committed.
Jackson’s high voice linked him to the great tradition of falsetto singing which came out of gospel music and led to such immediate predecessors as Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield.
But Jackson went beyond idiom, leaving the emotional immediacy of soul music far behind as, in collaboration with the great arranger and producer Quincy Jones, he created a music beyond restrictions of generation and ethnicity.

Those who felt that his music was weakened as a result, becoming the deracinated product of a man interested in securing an international audience while erasing first the primary signs, and eventually all traces, of his own ethnicity, found themselves very much in the minority.

The day after that Talk of the Town gig in the early 1970s, the Jackson 5 were made available for interviews in a London hotel. The older brothers — Jermaine, Marlon and the rest — were keen to do the public relations thing, as they had been taught.
Michael, however, sat by himself with a pencil and a puzzle book. When he was approached, he lifted his face and confronted his questioner with a pair of huge brown eyes that gave nothing away. Already, he was in his own world.

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