Growing up with Michael Jackson
By Gene Grant
As a professional eavesdropper, there are but precious few moments in my lifetime that can aspire to the folklore level. And few will be as grand for the fine art of listening in as the sudden death of Michael Jackson.
His passing also brought down the final curtain on a personal 40-year odyssey of eavesdropping on others talking about him. Of course, any discussion of MJ revolves around race, no matter if you’re black or white.
My dad was pretty well traveled, particularly in the music scenes in New York. In the late ’60s our family was aware of this little Michael Jackson kid. A lot of black families knew, actually. The Jacksons had been killing in Chicago (opening for Bobby Taylor, who went on to produce those huge Motown hits) and particularly in New York City after they won the amateur night talent show laurels at The Apollo in Harlem in ’67.
Keep in mind the African-American community in the late ’60s was a fairly tight, city-to-city, word-of-mouth deal. Particularly when it came to music and performers, and the Jacksons had been working the Midwest “chitlin’ circuit” hard.
In fact, for many black families the “real” first Jackson Five nationwide television appearance was not Ed Sullivan but the “Miss Black America Pageant” in August 1969, with a funky-ass cover of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” There’s a beautiful, sexy, ragged, you-can-see-it-all-coming-for-Michael YouTube artifact of it everyone has missed in their J5 cartoon and "Ben" video nostalgia.
It predated the group’s now epic appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in December 1969, my first All Things Michael Considered experience.
My folks were as jaded as they came musically, having seen nearly everyone (that they cared about, anyway), and I caught them breathlessly talking up the J5-Sullivan appearance in our kitchen. I had never heard this tone. I held up around the corner, transfixed.
Mind you, Michael Jackson and I were a couple months apart in age, and I had been fascinated at the very idea of a kid my age (10 then) fronting a singing group. A few nights later, there he was in that badass magenta brim and dark brown vest fringe on Ed Sullivan. He was just Too Bad.
Flash forward a decade to my first radio gig in the summer of 1979 as a phone request-answering intern.
I toiled in the basement, under the studio, at night. Alone. It was just me, the phone and a call sheet, jotting requests I’d run upstairs to the disc jockey. Easy labor, a lot of phone flirting and some decent weed from the DJs for the effort.
Not a month later, Off the Wall blew up. And I mean, blew the fuck up.
The phones never stopped. Every call was literally a cry for help. “Could you please, please, please play Michael? Please?” Beyond breathless.
I can still hear some of those voices to this day. I loved it. Every tone, tenor, drawl, twang, cadence and lilt imaginable. All pleading for Michael. And it wasn’t a Black Thing anymore. Oh no.
It was a privilege. Like having my ear on a glass pressed to the wall of the city.
Alas, the Off the Wall insanity reached proportions so over-the-top ridiculous we interns virtually revolted in backlash. We didn’t even bother writing anything down. By winter we were telling these little shits to get a life.
Off the Wall charted four songs in the top 10 and the rest close to it. It was endless. Mind-numbing. The hits from the album went on so bloody long that it wasn’t until the following spring that the last of them, “She’s Out of My Life,” was released. It was a run that went from August to April, and beyond. That was it. I was done eavesdropping. Besides, I needed to get paid. I could buy my own weed. Time to move on.
And then Thriller. Please. For three years, it was Michael Jackson’s planet and the rest of us were merely guests on it.
If you recall the ’83 "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever" broadcast, it was all about the “Billie Jean” moonwalk. For me the deal was sealed the next day when I walked into the 50,000-watt, killer AM news and public affairs radio station where I was then working. Going down the hall, I happened by an office where three of our hardest- (and reddest-) nosed news guys were practically having a circle jerk over the broadcast.
It stopped me dead cold. The poor (old, white) sods apparently had tuned in for The Supremes reunion portion and got much more than they (culturally) bargained for. It was a bite-the-tongue-bloody moment. Michael Jackson had done it again.
Which brings us to the present. There’s been much to eavesdrop on. All delicious.
I like what I’m hearing. I’m in a good place about it.
He’s dead. It is what it is. And the Jacko legacy is in zero danger as far as I’m concerned.
Did you catch the EriAm Sisters (Lianda, Haben and Salina Abraham) on “America’s Got Talent” two weeks back? Yes, a crap television show, but they utterly crushed the J5’s “I Want You Back.” Dial it up. It’s brilliant. If you don’t appreciate the Michael Jackson cum Ed Sullivan-esque echo bounce of an 11-, 14- and 15-year-old girl group (of East African descent, Eritrea specifically) breaking down the 1969 Jackson Five on a 2009 network talent show, then you have no soul.
Michael Jackson is now and forever the midwife for any and all significant pop music from this point forward. The fulcrum every producer, session musician and singer will consider his or her talent against.
Jacko is solid gold. Today, tomorrow and forever.
Visit the Alibi’s Virtual Michael Jackson Shrine to post your own memories and comments.
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