Some folks call him the King of Pop. Others call him Wacko Jacko. However you refer to him, you can’t deny that Michael Jackson was one of a kind. In just under 51 years on Earth, the man rewrote the rules for child stars, black stars, and pop stars in general with songs and albums that not only sold many millions of copies, but were pretty good besides. Well, for the most part, anyway. While there were quite a few things that added to his notoriety (especially in his later years), this series is going to stick to his music.
In celebration of his life, and in commemoration of the first anniversary of his passing on June 25th, I’ll be taking a look at the albums he made both solo and with his brothers in the Jackson 5 (later the Jacksons).
Motown president Berry Gordy obviously put a lot of faith and promotional muscle behind The Jackson 5, enlisting his biggest star to pose as their benefactor. Motown’s albums were largely conceptualized as “hits plus filler” at this point, but what amazes most about these earlier albums is that they hold up better than a lot of carefully constructed and conceptualized albums today. Diana Ross Presents may begin with a Disney song (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”), but the album actually turns out to be the most traditionally soulful and least bubblegum of all the early J5 albums.Thank artist/producer Bobby Taylor (who helmed most of the album and is allegedly the man who really brought the brothers to Gordy’s attention) for that. Highlights include a rip-roaring take on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” and an equally frenetic, Jermaine-led run through The Temptations “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” but this album’s biggest revelations are ballads like “Can You Remember?,” “Born to Love You,” and a stunning version of Smokey Robinson’s bluesy “Who’s Lovin’ You?,” on which 11-year old Michael emotes like someone three times his age.
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By the time this album was released, the J5 were a bonafide sensation. Bobby Taylor had quickly been hustled out of the picture: he only produced one song here after producing over half of the group’s first album. He was replaced by “The Corporation,” the crack writing and producing staff Gordy founded and led specifically to craft hits for the J5. The music on ABC was certainly more commercial than Diana Ross Presents…, but there was still a lot of soul inside that little body — “Come ‘Round Here (I’m the One You Need)” is one example of a still pre-pubescent MJ giving Levi Stubbs and David Ruffin a run for their money. Songs like this gave the J5 adult appeal, a rarity for kid acts past and present. Elsewhere, there are the hits (“ABC” and “The Love You Save”), an obvious conceptual follow-up to one of those hits (“2-4-6-8”), a pretty ballad for Jermaine’s fans to swoon over (“I Found That Girl”), a smooth soul cover (“[La La] Means I Love You”), a fuzzed-out George Clinton song on which all the brothers handle lead vocals (“I’ll Bet You” — and yes, it’s THAT George Clinton), AND the album closes with as close to a protest song as Motown would allow their five young charges to sing (“The Young Folks”). Pretty epic, huh?
Third Album (1970)
It’s been said before, but it certainly bears repeating: what amazes most about the early J5 stuff after all this time is the emotional heft and believability Michael gave to this material at such a young age. There’s no way any 12-year old should have been able to pull off a song like “Can I See You in the Morning” as well as he did. By now, listeners had become used to the mix of kid-friendly material with more challenging songs, so having songs like the gimmicky “Goin’ Back to Indiana” (or “Mama’s Pearl” — the first sign that the formula was starting to get a little tired) on the same album as “Darling Dear” (a song very reminiscent of the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame”) was not as jarring. Also at this point, some of the rougher edges of Michael’s voice had been smoothed out, so the overall effect is less Jackie Wilson or James Brown and more Diana Ross. Of course, there are several well-chosen covers (“[Ready Or Not] Here I Come” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and oh yeah — there’s also “I’ll Be There,” the tender ballad which would become the J5’s biggest hit.
Maybe Tomorrow (1971)
Formula started to creep in by the time this album hit the shelves. A good 75% of the songs on this album sound like older entries in the Jackson 5’s catalog. Even Michael sounds bored compared to previous recordings. Worth recommending here? The two singles, for one. Michael had really come into his own as a balladeer — and the album’s title track and “Never Can Say Goodbye” are among the best tracks of the group’s Motown era. Most of the uptempo tracks shamelessly rip off the J5’s original run of hits, with the two main exceptions being the ultra-funky “It’s Great to Be Here” (which would later become a sampling/break beat staple) and the amazingly corny “Honey Chile,” featuring spoken recitative from Michael that borders on cringe-worthy. Jermaine (who was being primed for a solo career at this point) has quite a bit of featured material here, all in the smooth ballad territory. The best is the easygoing “She’s Good,” the worst is an unnecessary cover of “Sixteen Candles.”
Goin’ Back to Indiana (1971)
Nothing to see here. Well, more accurately-nothing to hear here. A couple of live performances and a couple of comedy skits featuring the likes of Bill Cosby. This was the soundtrack accompaniment to a television special the brothers filmed in 1971. Someone needs to release this on DVD stat! Actually, considering the soundtrack was just re-released on CD this past January, I don’t understand why someone didn’t have the brainstorm to package it with the DVD.
Lookin’ Through the Windows (1972)
Soul music was going through a major change at the time Lookin’ Through the Windows was released. Albums like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On introduced the concept album to R&B, and also brought forth the age of the black singer/songwriter. However, the J5 kept it the same as it ever was, or perhaps more accurately, Motown kept things the same as they were, considering the J5 really had no say in the matter. The the hits plus filler formula was still the modus operandi. The material’s fairly inconsistent — for every song like the sublime cover of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” there’s Johnny Bristol‘s “E-Ne-Me-Ne-Mi-Ne-Moe” (an obvious attempt to recapture the magic of “ABC”/”The Love You Save”/”Mama’s Pearl”/”Sugar Daddy”). There are also attempts to ape the sound of Al Green & Willie Mitchell (“To Know”) and…the Partridge Family (“Children of the Light”)? The finger-snappin’ version of Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” is fun enough, but then you have to sit through songs like “Don’t Want to See Tomorrow,” notable only for Michael’s unintentionally hilarious screeching en Espanol. Screeching aside, Windows is also notable for being the album where Michael’s voice slowly began to change. Windows is the least essential work of the brothers‘ career.
The lowest-selling of the studio albums released while the J5 were under contract at Motown, Skywriter is notable for several reasons. One is that The Corporation, the team that wrote and produced many of the group’s smashes, is relegated to only one track here (which wasn’t even a single, and also isn‘t very good). Another is that disco had already started to make inroads into the public consciousness and the Motown sound, as evidenced by the danceable title track. The most notable change, however, is in Michael’s voice, which was inching closer and closer to adulthood. His performance on the sexy ballad “Touch” is a highlight (although the song itself is a little much for a 14-year-old to be singing). The songs are less cute and bubblegum than on previous albums, but the cuteness seems to have been replaced by a somewhat bizarre “up with people” lyrical bent that began with the previous album’s “Children of the Light” and expands into full flower here (see: “Hallelujah Day,” “Corner of the Sky,” and “World of Sunshine” for examples). There’s also much more of a democratic approach to vocals on this album, as all five brothers get singing parts on at least one track. I guess while Motown’s staff was trying to figure out what to do with Michael’s going through puberty, they figured the other brothers might as well get a chance to shine.
Get It Together (1973)
After a couple of mediocre albums (from a commercial as well as creative standpoint), Get It Together was a sign that things were back on an upward swing for the Jackson 5. This album offers some kicking dance tracks that presaged the commercial dominance of disco. Of course, everyone remembers “Dancing Machine,” but there’s also the insistent title track, not to mention the groovaliciously funky “Hum Along & Dance.” That particular song is eight and a half minutes of proto-disco goodness, although it should also be noted that the brothers themselves barely make an appearance here, leaving the Motown house band to take center stage. A mature Michael shines on the wistful “It’s Too Late to Change the Time,” and there’s only one cover (a fairly faithful version of Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Reflections”). Get It Together firmly suggested that there might be opportunities for the J5 even after Michael grew up.
Dancing Machine (1974)
With the success of the “Dancing Machine” single and Jermaine’s marriage to Hazel Gordy (AKA the boss’s daughter), it looked like things were going to work out just fine for the J5 at Motown, and they did — for a short time, anyway. Dancing Machine the album (obviously titled to capitalize on the success of the hit single, never mind the fact that it was already on another album!) might be the group’s most cohesive and consistently enjoyable Motown effort. Given Michael’s talent for rhythmic and percussive singing, Motown’s writers and producers were wise to give the brothers material that accentuated the groove. “The Life of the Party” is guaranteed to heat up the dance floor and contains some great harmonies and vocal interplay between Michael and Jermaine. “Whatever You Got, I Want” is a sassy slice of bluesy funk, and “If I Don’t Love You This Way” is a slow jam features some of Michael’s best crooning. There’s also “I Am Love,” an interesting slice of prog-soul that stands as one of the more experimental entries in the group’s Motown catalog. Somewhat surprisingly, it became their first Top 20 pop hit as The Jackson 5.
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Moving Violation (1975)
By the time 1975 rolled around, the Jackson 5 were urging Motown boss Berry Gordy to allow them to write and produce their own material. Gordy would hear none of that, and soon the brothers were off to the greener pastures of Epic Records. However, Moving Violation, the last album of original material released while the brothers were still under contract to Motown, offers no hint of discord. While not as strong as Dancing Machine, the material the brothers were given was still pretty high quality. Highlights here included the lush ballad “All I Do Is Think of You” (a #1 R&B hit in 1991 when re-recorded by Troop) and the appropriately titled “Breezy.” Somewhat ironically, the album’s biggest hit was a rendering of the Supremes’ “Forever Came Today” that was strongly influenced by the new soul sound coming out of Philly. The Jacksons would wind up working with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff — the architects of that sound — on their next two albums.
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Joyful Jukebox Music (1976)
Motown had a way of messing with artists who left the company. They’d put out albums of previously unreleased material at the same time the act’s new label released music. In less media-savvy times, this served to dilute the impact of the new product upon the public. Such was the case with Joyful Jukebox Music. The songs included were recorded at various times through the group’s career, so you have a prepubescent Michael shouting out The Rascals’ “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” preceded by a smoother, teenage Michael cashing in on Happy Days/American Graffiti-inspired Fifties nostalgia with the title track. Jukebox was finally made available on CD in a limited run of 5,000 copies just a few short years ago through Hip-O Select, who combined the album with another collection of (mostly) unreleased material called Boogie (originally released in 1979).
The Jackson 5’s music has been compiled MANY times over the years, starting with their first hits compilation, which came only two years after they’d arrived on the scene! If you’re in the market for a good J5 collection, your best bet is probably the two-disc Gold series, which contains all the hits plus a smattering of Jermaine’s and Michael’s solo favorites. Folks looking for something more exhaustive would be wise to hunt down Soulsation!, a 4-CD box set Motown released back in 1995. It has all the hits, adds in a good amount of previously unheard material and even contains a selection from Jackie’s 1973 solo album. It’s been out of print for quite some time, but can still be found online at a good price. The last few years have seen a marked increase in Motown Jackson reissues. Their iconic Christmas album (which is still a staple in my house come holiday time) is available as part of Universal’s 20th Century Masters series, and their Live in Japan! release (also from Hip-O Select) will probably be of interest to fans. More recently, there’s I Want You Back! The Unreleased Masters, which includes some material that can stand toe-to-toe with the songs that actually made it onto the officially released albums. In a rarity for a Motown act, all of the Jackson 5 studio albums are in print on CD (with the first four available in pairs) in addition to being available digitally.
Up next, we take a look at the solo material Michael recorded for Motown.