Michael’s family members might have wanted to keep the Jackson 5 a democracy, but Motown Records knew a superstar when they saw one. Furthermore, they noticed what competing label MGM was doing with the Osmonds (whose initial pop success was due to a not-so-subtle “Pat Boone-ing” of the J5 sound). Their lead singer (and resident cute kid) Donny started making solo records shortly after he and his brothers achieved their initial success, so not quite two years after “I Want You Back” stormed the airwaves, Motown issued the first Michael Jackson solo album. So, in some weird way, I guess we owe to beginning of Michael Jackson’s solo career to Donny Osmond?
Michael wouldn’t actually leave the family group for nearly another decade and a half, but when “Got to Be There” arrived in 1971 (and was a hit), the family dynamic must have shifted somewhat. I’m sure a lightbulb went off somewhere in Michael’s head and he realized that at some point in the future, he might not need his brothers. Hell, for a brief time, Michael was more successful as a solo artist than the group was, which had to ruffle some feathers.
Truth is, though: the brothers got the better material. Michael’s solo work for Motown is pretty heavy on filler. While good chunks of the brothers’ albums were comprised of covers, it’s clear when listening to Michael’s albums that the Motown staff of writers and producers saved their “A” material for the J5. The individual MJ solo albums are not currently available on CD (although, interestingly enough, they were re-released earlier this year on vinyl), and truthfully, unless you’re a completist, you don’t really need ‘em. The best way to get a flavor for the Motown solo years is in compilation form.
Got to Be There (1971)
Michael’s debut solo album is heavy on the ballads. The J5 were going strong with the love songs at the time (“Maybe Tomorrow” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” were their most recent hits), so I guess that makes sense. While the cover of “Rockin’ Robin” is a little too cutesy (and the saccharine “In Our Small Way“ sounds like it belongs in a Disney movie), most of the material serves as a great showcase for Michael’s expressive voice. Vocally, he soars even when the material doesn’t. The title track and “I Wanna Be Where You Are” are the best of the original songs. As far as covers, there’s a serviceable rendering of “You’ve Got a Friend,” an outrageously campy version of The Supremes’ “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone,” and a brilliant recasting of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” that (in my humble opinion) is better than the original. No small feat, given the iconic status of that particular tune.
Motown was obviously not giving Michael’s solo career the same TLC that the Jackson 5’s career was getting (relative lack of success around this time notwithstanding). Either that or they were so surprised by the success of “Ben” (the Academy Award-nominated theme to the “B” horror movie and Michael’s first solo #1) that they cobbled this mess of an album together almost as an afterthought. The material seems to have been chosen haphazardly. Aside from “Ben” (as much as some folks hate this song, I think it’s amazing), its B-side “You Can Cry on My Shoulder” and an update of The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round,” there’s nothing here worth recommending. There are lackluster covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl” and Stevie Wonder’s “Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day,” and for some reason, “In Our Small Way” makes it’s second appearance on a Michael Jackson album. That fact alone should offer definitive proof that Motown got caught with its pants down on this one.
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Music & Me (1973)
Would I be correct in assuming that in order to create separation between the J5 material and MJ’s solo material, Michael’s records leaned more towards balladry? That’s the impression I get after listening to this album. The schmaltz factor is way off the charts here, thanks to a heavily orchestrated cover of “Too Young” and songs like “With a Child’s Heart” and “Happy.” It’s like Michael’s in training to become a junior version of Johnny Mathis. This leads to a well-sung but dreadfully boring album. If you do check this out, do it for the pretty title track (similar to “Ben,” except for substitute the love of a killer rat for the love of music). The funky “Euphoria” and a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around” (Jackie was one of Michael’s idols, and this tribute is quite reverential) are the only other songs here worth mentioning. You might also consider this a companion piece of sorts to the J5’s Skywriter, as these two albums serve as the bridge between Michael’s pre-adolescent falsetto and his adult tenor.
Forever, Michael (1975)
There was a two-year lag time between solo albums for Michael, and while his brothers had gotten somewhat back on track commercially, Forever, Michael wasn’t a strong performer. That said, it’s the best solo album he recorded for Motown. The songs are less sappy than on previous efforts, and songs like “We’re Almost There,” “Take Me Back” and the hit “Just a Little Bit of You” are a good combination of danceable grooves and fluffy pop lyricism. The album’s most interesting track is “Dear Michael,” sung as a love letter written to him by a loving fan. Perhaps in 1975, it sounded cute. These days, it sounds almost creepy in an Eminem “Stan” kind of way. Here’s a fun fact: in 1984, at the height of Michael-mania, Kim Fields (Tootie from The Facts of Life) kicked off her recording career with a cover of this song.
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Motown tried to capitalize on Michael’s adult solo success twice. First, they released One Day in Your Life in 1981. This title, released shortly after MJ first took the world by storm with Off the Wall, is comprised mainly of previously released material from the Forever, Michael and Dancing Machine albums. The title track actually became Michael’s first #1 single in the U.K. Three years later, Motown put out Farewell My Summer Love 1984 to cash in on Thriller-mania. This material had been previously unreleased. There’s nothing particularly special about the album — the stuff was probably in Motown’s vaults for a reason. That said, one track stands out: in light of what we now know about Joseph Jackson, that album’s “To Make My Father Proud” is incredibly heartbreaking. Motown has issued a double-disc Gold compilation dedicated to Michael’s solo work (with a few J5 tracks tossed in), but a good buy might be Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection. This three-disc set (released mere weeks after Michael’s death, although it had already been placed on the release schedule when he passed) contains each of Michael’s solo albums for Motown in their entirety along with a smattering of bonus tracks. Since Michael’s death, Motown’s gone to the well repeatedly. Neither The Stripped Mixes nor The Remix Suite has anything remotely interesting to offer (unless you want to hear a crop of today’s producers completely fuck up songs that were perfectly good to begin with), and we might as well just leave it at that.
Who knew that when Michael and his brothers left Motown in 1975, the best was yet to come?