One of the blessings we’ve gotten from Michael Jackson is the archive of filmed, documented milestones. Looking back, it can be considered the most public “progress report” of any entertainer in the last 45 years.
Yet two of his arguably most compelling milestones (and innovations) in his captured life have seemingly missed the big cut of the conversation since his passing. That’s a shame, because without factoring in the two videos below the arc, the entirety of the sweep of his genius is incomplete.
Here are my two top Michael Jackson (and by extension, Jackson Five) captured moments, along with one of his most famous (the Motown 25th Anniversary “Billie Jean” sequence), and finally, a very recent addition that demonstrates fully just how influential the man and his family were. [See this week’s “HIStory” opinion column for a reflection on Jackson’s more personal influence.]
The best way I can describe this gloriously ragged capture of the Jackson Five’s first nationwide telecast performance is “undistilled.” The band is just the Jacksons, not sessions pros. A couple of crap amps, a microphone for the rest of the Jacksons that doesn’t seem to work well and a very young Michael fronting.
A number of things to watch for. One, since they had not “broken out” yet, the crowd basically doesn’t know what to make of it. It is not nearly the Jackson Five Mania response we’ve been conditioned to see. Second, of course, is Michael, who almost seems older here than in their debut Ed Sullivan appearance to come. The song, the super-funky Isley Brothers hit “It’s Your Thing,” likely contributes.
The technical flaws make this a tough watch, but it’s worth waiting for the end. Check the crowd response when Michael does his thing away from the band, with a couple of double snare pop hip thrusts straight at the crowd. There’s an audible gasp that is scintillating. It’s the first coast-to-coast Michael “hit.”
Michael’s “crowd management” mastery is on full display. He has to work it twice, but finally gets a solid call and response thing going near the end.
It’s a “chitlin’ circuit” raggedy-ass delicious piece of archival footage.
By the time of “Dancing Machine,” a lot of the national television dates had been reduced to daytime shows like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, and not primetime extravaganzas. Additionally, the J5 was doing world tours and had a big Vegas run in 1974 coming.
Even though it did fairly well, “Dancing Machine” turned out to be the group’s first hit as a unit in a while. And it would be a bit before the next. It’s an interesting time that it seemed not many paid attention to, likely because the clothing, the dance steps, everything, seemed a bit musty. Even by ’74 heart-of-disco standards.
However, this “Soul Train” segment, a Saturday morning staple for any black American household, is significant. And not just because whenever the Jackson Five was on, it was a big effen deal. It was about what he did during it: The Robot.
It’s hard to imagine there was a time in the country when there was no Robot, but when Michael busted this, it set off a bomb in African-American youth culture. Within seemingly weeks, it was everywhere.
Watch closely at the end of the Robot bit. His eyes blank, floating, and then he snaps back to the microphone with a wicked twinkle in his eye, like, “How you like that?!”
Michael is in complete control here in a studio, lip-synched setting, especially when he steps forward into the audience, à la the Miss Black America Pageant. It lights off a nifty crowd reaction, working it out ’70s style with the group.
And while we’re talking about “Thriller,” why not indulge in Michael, circa 1983, at the Motown 25th anniversary network special and his now infamous “Billie Jean” performance featuring The Moonwalk. Tell me you don’t see bits from the Miss Black America Pageant and the “Soul Train” bit in his moves now. It’s all connected.
Finally, if any more proof be needed that Michael Jackson (and the Jackson Five) have left an indelible print on pop culture, it all became clear earlier in June when three young girls walked on stage for the season opening episode of “America’s Got Talent” and broke out this performance of “I Want You Back.”
I happened on it channel surfing and was blown away. These kids, 11, 14 and 15, are talented, adorable and as the headline in their hometown newspaper in the Seattle area asks, are they the next Jackson Five?
For any family singing group from now until forever, that will be the question.