Chapter One – Just Kids With A Dream
I've always wanted to be able to tell stories, you know, stories that came
from my soul. I'd like to sit by a fire and tell people stories - make them
see pictures, make them cry and laugh, take them anywhere emotionally with
something as deceptively simple as words. I'd like to tell tales to move
their souls and transform them. I've always wanted to be able to do that.
Imagine how the great writers must feel, knowing they have that power. I
sometimes feel I could do it. It's something I'd like to develop. In a way,
songwriting uses the same skills, creates the emotional highs and lows, but
the story is a sketch. It's quicksilver. There are very few books written on
the art of storytelling, how to grip listeners, how to get a group of people
together and amuse them. No costumes, no makeup, no nothing, just you and
your voice, and your powerful ability to take them anywhere, to transform
their lives, if only for minutes.
As I begin to tell my story, I want to repeat what I usually say to people
when they ask me about my earliest days with the Jackson 5: I was so little
when we began to work on our music that I really don't remember much about
it. Most people have the luxury of careers that start when they're old
enough to know exactly what they're doing and why, but, of course, that
wasn't true of me. They remember everything that happened to them, but I was
only five years old. When you're a show business child, you really don't
have the maturity to understand a great deal of what is going on around you.
People make a lot of decisions concerning your life when you're out of the
room. So here's what I remember. I remember singing at the top of my voice
and dancing with real joy and working too hard for a child. Of course, there
are many details I don't remember at all. I do remember the Jackson 5 really
taking off when I was only eight or nine.
I was born in Gary, Indiana, on a late summer night in 1958, the seventh of
my parents' nine children. My father, Joe Jackson, was born in Arkansas, and
in 1949 he married my mother, Katherine Scruse, whose people came from
Alabama. My sister Maureen was born the following year and had the tough job
of being the oldest. Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, LaToya, and Marlon were all
next in line. Randy and Janet came after me.
A part of my earliest memories is my father's job working in the steel mill.
It was tough, mind-numbing work and he played music for escape. At the same
time, my mother was working in a department store. Because of my father, and
because of my mother's own love of music, we heard it all the time at home.
My father and his brother had a group called the Falcons who were the local
R&B band. My father played the guitar, as did his brother. They would do
some of the great early rock ¦n' roll and blues songs by Chuck Berry, Little
Richard, Otis Redding, you name it. All those styles were amazing and each
had an influence on Joe and on us, although we were too young to know it at
the time. The Falcons practised in the living room of our house in Gary, so
I was raised on R&B. Since we were nine kids and my father's brother had
eight of his own, our combined numbers made for a huge family. Music was
what we did for entertainment and those times helped keep us together and
kind of encouraged my father to be a family-oriented man. The Jackson 5 were
born out of this tradition - we later became the Jacksons - and because of
this training and musical tradition, I moved out on my own and established a
sound that is mine.
I remember my childhood as mostly work, even though I loved to sing. I
wasn't forced into this business by stage parents the way Judy Garland was.
I did it because I enjoyed it and because it was as natural to me as drawing
a breath and exhaling it. I did it because I was compelled to do it, not my
parents or family, but by my own inner life in the world of music.
There were times, let me make that clear, when I'd come home from school and
I'd only have time to put my books down and get ready for the studio. Once
there, I'd sing until late at night, until it was past my bedtime, really.
There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can
remember looking at those kids playing games. I'd just stare at them in
wonder - I couldn't imagine such freedom, such a carefree life - and wish
more than anything that I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away
and be like them. So there were sad moments in my childhood. It's true for
any child star. Elizabeth Taylor told me she felt the same way. When you're
young and you're working, the world can seem awfully unfair. I wasn't forced
to be little Michael the lead singer - I did it and I loved it - but it was
hard work. If we were doing an album, for example, we'd go off to the studio
after school and I might or might not get a snack. Sometimes there just
wasn't time. I'd come home, exhausted, and it'd be eleven or twelve and past
time to go to bed.
So I very much identify with anyone who worked as a child. I know how they
struggled, I know what they sacrificed. I also know what they learned. I've
learned that it becomes more of a challenge as one gets older. I feel old
for some reason. I really feel like an old soul, someone who's seen a lot
and experienced a lot. Because of all the years I've clocked in, it's hard
for me to accept that I am only twenty-nine. I've been in the business for
twenty-four years. Sometimes I feel like I should be near the end of my
life, turning eighty, with people patting me on the back. That's what comes
from starting so young.
When I first performed with my brothers, we were known as the Jacksons. We
would later become the Jackson 5. Still later, after we left Motown, we
would reclaim the Jacksons name again.
Every one of my albums or the group's albums has been dedicated to our
mother, Katherine Jackson, since we took over our own careers and began to
produce our own music. My first memories are of her holding me and singing
songs like "You Are My Sunshine" and "Cotton Fields." She sang to me and to
my brothers and sisters often. Even though she had lived in Indiana for some
time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was
just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music
on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes
Willie Nelson to this day. She has always had a beautiful voice and I
suppose I got my singing ability from my mother and, of course, from God.
Mom played the clarinet and the piano, which she taught my oldest sister,
Maureen, whom we call Rebbie, to play, just as she'd teach my other older
sister, LaToya. My mother knew, from an early age, that she would never
perform the music she loved in front of others, not because she didn't have
the talent and the ability, but because she was crippled by polio as a
child. She got over the disease, but not without a permanent limp in her
walk. She had to miss a great deal of school as a child, but she told us
that she was lucky to recover at a time when many died from the disease. I
remember how important it was to her that we got the sugar-cube vaccine. She
even made us miss a youth club show one Saturday afternoon - that's how
important it was in our family.
My mother knew her polio was not a curse but a test that God gave her to
triumph over, and she instilled in me a love of Him that I will always have.
She taught me that my talent for singing and dancing was as much God's work
as a beautiful sunset or a storm that left snow for children to play in.
Despite all the time we spent rehearsing and travelling, Mom would find time
to take me to the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses, usually with
Rebbie and LaToya.
Years later, after we had left Gary, we performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show",
the live Sunday night variety show where America first saw the Beatles,
Elvis, and Sly and the Family Stone. After the show, Mr. Sullivan
complimented and thanked each of us; but I was thinking about what he had
said to me before the show. I had been wandering around backstage, like the
kid in the Pepsi commercial, and ran into Mr. Sullivan. He seemed glad to
see me and shook my hand, but before he let it go he had a special message
for me. It was 1970, a year when some of the best people in rock were losing
their lives to drugs and alcohol. An older, wiser generation in show
business was unprepared to lose its very young. Some people had already said
that I reminded them of Frankie Lymon, a great young singer of the 1950s who
lost his life that way. Ed Sullivan may have been thinking of all this when
he told me, "Never forget where your talent came from, that your talent is a
gift from God."
I was grateful for his kindness, but I could have told him that my mother
had never let me forget. I never had polio, which is a frightening thing for
a dancer to think about, but I knew God had tested me and my brothers and
sisters in other ways - our large family, our tiny house, the small amount
of money we had to make ends meet, even the jealous kids in the
neighbourhood who threw rocks at our windows while we rehearsed, yelling
that we'd never make it. When I think of my mother and our early years, I
can tell you there are rewards that go far beyond money and public acclaim
My mother was a great provider. If she found out that one of us had an
interest in something, she would encourage it if there was any possible way.
If I developed an interest in movie stars, for instance, she'd come home
with an armful of books about famous stars. Even with nine children she
treated each of us like an only child. There isn't one of us who's ever
forgotten what a hard worker and great provider she was. It's an old story.
Every child thinks their mother is the greatest mother in the world, but we
Jacksons never lost that feeling. Because of Katherine's gentleness, warmth,
and attention, I can't imagine what it must be like to grow up without a
One thing I know about children is that if they don't get the love they need
from their parents, they'll get it from someone else and cling to that
person, a grandparent, anyone. We never had to look for anyone else with my
mother around. The lessons she taught us were invaluable. Kindness, love,
and consideration for other people headed her list. Don't hurt people. Never
beg. Never freeload. Those were sins at our house. She always wanted us to
give , but she never wanted us to ask or beg. That's the way she is.
I remember a good story about my mother that illustrates her nature. One
day, back in Gary, when I was real little, this man knocked on everybody's
door early in the morning. He was bleeding so badly you could see where he'd
been around the neighbourhood. No one would let him in. Finally he got to
our door and he started banging and knocking. Mother let him in at once.
Now, most people would have been too afraid to do that, but that's my
mother. I can remember waking up and finding blood on our floor. I wish we
could all be more like Mum.
The earliest memories I have of my father are of him coming home from the
steel mill with a big bag of glazed doughnuts for all of us. My brothers and
I could really eat back then and that bag would disappear with a snap of the
fingers. He used to take us all to the merry-go-round in the park, but I was
so young I don't remember that very well.
My father has always been something of a mystery to me and he knows it. One
of the few things I regret most is never being able to have a real closeness
with him. He built a shell around himself over the years and, once he
stopped talking about our family business, he found it hard to relate to us.
We'd all be together and he'd just leave the room. Even today it's hard for
him to touch on father and son stuff because he's too embarrassed. When I
see that he is, I become embarrassed, too.
My father did always protect us and that's no small feat. He always tried to
make sure people didn't cheat us. He looked after our interests in the best
ways. He might have made a few mistakes along the way, but he always thought
he was doing what was right for his family. And, of course, most of what my
father helped us accomplish was wonderful and unique, especially in regard
to our relationships with companies and people in the business. I'd say we
were among a fortunate few artists who walked away from a childhood in the
business with anything substantial - money, real estate, other investments.
My father set all these up for us. He looked out for both our interests and
his. To this day I'm so thankful he didn't try to take all our money for
himself the way so many parents of child stars have. Imagine stealing from
your own children. My father never did anything like that. But I still don't
know him, and that's sad for a son who hungers to understand his own father.
He's still a mystery man to me and he may always be one.
What I got from my father wasn't necessarily God-given, though the Bible
says you reap what you sow. When we were coming along, Dad said that in a
different way, but the message was just as clear: You could have all the
talent in the world, but if you didn't prepare and plan, it wouldn't do you
Joe Jackson had always loved singing and music as much as my mother did, but
he also knew there was a world beyond Jackson Street. I wasn't old enough to
remember his band, the Falcons, but they came over to our house to rehearse
on weekends. The music took them away from their jobs at the steel mill,
where Dad drove a crane. The Falcons would play all over town, and in clubs
and colleges around northern Indiana and Chicago. At the rehearsals at our
house, Dad would bring his guitar out of the closet and plug it into the amp
he kept in the basement. He'd always loved rhythm and blues and that guitar
was his pride and joy. The closet where the guitar was kept was considered
an almost sacred place. Needless to say, it was off-limits to us kids. Dad
didn't go to Kingdom Hall with us, but both Mom and Dad knew that music was
a way of keeping our family together in a neighbourhood where gangs
recruited kids my brothers' ages. The three oldest boys would always have an
excuse to around when the Falcons came over. Dad let them think they were
being given a special treat by being allowed to listen, but he was actually
eager to have them there.
Tito watched everything that was going on with the greatest interest. He'd
taken saxophone in school, but he could tell his hands were big enough to
grab the chords and slip the riffs that my father played. It made sense that
he'd catch on, because Tito looked so much like my father that we all
expected him to share Dad's talents. The extent of the resemblance was scary
as he got older. Maybe my father noticed Tito's zeal because he laid down
rules for all my brothers: No one was to touch the guitar while he was out.
Therefore, Jackie, Tito, and Jermaine were careful to see that Mom was in
the kitchen when they "borrowed" the guitar. They were also careful not to
make any noise while removing it. They would then go back to our room and
put on the radio or the little portable record player so they could play
along. Tito would hoist the guitar onto his belly as he sat on the bed and
prop it up. He took turns with Jackie and Jermaine, and they'd all try the
scales they were learning in school as well as try to figure out how to get
the "Green Onions" part they'd hear on the radio.
By now I was old enough to sneak in and watch if I promised not to tell. One
day Mom finally caught them, and we were all worried. She scolded the boys,
but said she wouldn't tell Dad as long as we were careful. She knew that
guitar was keeping them from running with a bad crowd and maybe getting beat
up, so she wasn't about to take away anything that kept them within arm's
Of course, something had to give sooner or later, and one day a string
broke. My brothers panicked. There wasn't time to get it repaired before Dad
came home, and besides, none if us knew how to go about getting it fixed. My
brothers never figured out what to do, so they put the guitar back in the
closet and hoped fervently that my father would think it broke by itself. Of
course, Dad didn't buy that, and he was furious. My sisters told me to stay
out of it and keep a low profile. I heard Tito crying after Dad found out
and I went to investigate, of course. Tito was on his bed crying when Dad
came back and motioned for him to get up. Tito was scared, but my father
just stood there, holding his favourite guitar. He gave Tito a hard,
penetrating look and said, "Let me see what you can do."
My brother pulled himself together and started to play a few runs he had
taught himself. When my father saw how well Tito could play, he knew he'd
obviously been practising and he realised that Tito and the rest of us
didn't treat his favourite guitar as if it were a toy. It became clear to
him that what had happened had been only an accident. At this point my
mother stepped in and voiced her enthusiasm for our musical ability. She
told him that we boys had talent and he should listen to us. She kept
pushing for us, so one day he began to listen and he liked what he heard.
Tito, Jackie, and Jermaine started rehearsing together in earnest. A couple
of years later, when I was about five, Mom pointed out to my father that I
was a good singer and could play the bongos. I became a member of the group.
About then my father decided that what was happening in his family was
serious. Gradually he began spending less time with the Falcons and more
with us. We'd just woodshed together and he'd give us some tips and teach us
techniques on the guitar. Marlon and I weren't old enough to play, but we'd
watch when my father rehearsed the older boys and we were learning when we
watched. The ban on using Dad's guitar still held when he wasn't around, but
my brothers loved using it when they could. The house on Jackson Street was
bursting with music. Dad and Mom had paid for music lessons for Rebbie and
Jackie when they were little kids, so they had a good background. The rest
of us had music class and band in the Gary schools, but no amount of
practice was enough to harness all that energy.
The Falcons were still earning money, however infrequent their gigs, and
that extra money was important to us. It was enough to keep food on the
table for a growing family but not enough to give us things that weren't
necessary. Mom was working part-time at Sears, Dad was still working the
mill job, and no one was going hungry, but I think, looking back, that
things must have seemed one big dead end.
One day Dad was late coming home and Mom began to get worried. By the time
he arrived, she was ready to give him a piece of her mind, something we boys
didn't mind witnessing once in a while just to see if he could take it like
he dished it out, but when he poked his head through the door, he had a
mischievous look on his face and he was hiding something behind his back. We
were all shocked when he produced a gleaming red guitar, slightly smaller
than the one in the closet. We were all hoping this meant we'd get the old
one. But Dad said the new guitar was Tito's. We gathered around to admire
it, while Dad told Tito he had to share it with anyone who would practice .
We were not to take it to school to show it off. This was a serious present
and that day was a momentous occasion for the Jackson family.
Mom was happy for us, but she also knew her husband. She was more aware than
we of the big ambitions and plans he had for us. He'd begun talking to her
at night after we kids were asleep. He had dreams and those dreams didn't
stop with one guitar. Pretty soon we were dealing with equipment, not just
gifts. Jermaine got a bass and an amp. There were shakers for Jackie. Our
bedroom and living room began to look like a music store. Sometimes I'd hear
Mom and Dad fight when the subject of money was brought up, because all
those instruments and accessories meant having to go without a little
something we needed each week. Dad was persuasive, though, and he didn't
miss a trick.
We even had microphones in the house. They seemed like a real luxury at the
time, especially to a woman who was trying to stretch a very small budget,
but I've come to realise that having those microphones in our house wasn't
just an attempt to keep up with the Joneses or anyone else in amateur night
competitions. They were there to help us prepare. I saw people at talent
shows, who probably sounded great at home, clam up the moment they got in
front of a microphone. Others started screaming their songs like they wanted
to prove they didn't need the mikes. They didn't have the advantage that we
did - an advantage that only experience can give you. I think it probably
made some people jealous because they could tell our expertise with the
mikes gave us an edge. If that was true, we made so many sacrifices - in
free time, schoolwork, and friends - that no one had the right to be
jealous. We were becoming very good, but we were working like people twice
While I was watching my older brothers, including Marlon on the bongo drums,
Dad got a couple of young guys named Johnny Jackson and Randy Rancifer to
play trap drums and organ. Motown would later claim they were our cousins,
but that was just an embellishment from the P.R. people, who wanted to make
us seem like one big family. We had become a real band! I was like a sponge,
watching everyone, and trying to learn everything I could. I was totally
absorbed when my brothers were rehearsing or playing at charity events or
shopping centres. I was most fascinated when watching Jermaine because he
was the singer at the time and he was a big brother to me - Marlon was too
close to me in age for that. It was Jermaine who would walk me to
kindergarten and whose clothes would be handed down to me. When he did
something, I tried to imitate him. When I was successful at it, my brothers
and Dad would laugh, but when I began singing, they listened. I was singing
in a baby voice then and just imitating sounds. I was so young I didn't know
what many of the words meant, but the more I sang, the better I got.
I always knew how to dance. I would watch Marlon's moves because Jermaine
had the big bass to carry, but also because I could keep up with Marlon, who
was only a year older then me. Soon I was doing most of the singing at home
and preparing to join my brothers in public. Through our rehearsals, we were
all becoming aware of our particular strengths and weaknesses as members of
the group and the shift in responsibilities was happening naturally.
Our family's house in Gary was tiny, only three rooms really, but at the
time it seemed much larger to me. When you're that young, the whole world
seems so huge that a little room can seem four times its size. When we went
back to Gary years later, we were all surprised at how tiny that house was.
I had remembered it as being large, but you could take five steps from the
front door and you'd be out the back. It was really no bigger then a garage,
but when we lived there it seemed fine to us kids. You see things from such
a different perspective when you're young. Our school days in Gary are a
blur for me. I vaguely remember being dropped off in front of my school on
the first day of kindergarten, and I clearly remember hating it. I didn't
want my mother to leave me, naturally, and I didn't want to be there.
In time I adjusted, as all kids do, and I grew to love my teachers,
especially the women. They were always very sweet to us and they just loved
me. Those teachers were so wonderful; I'd be promoted from one grade to the
next and they'd all cry and hug me and tell me how much they hated to see me
leave their classes. I was so crazy about my teachers that I'd steal my
mother's jewellery and give it to them as presents. They'd be very touched,
but eventually my mother found out about it, and put an end to my generosity
with her things. That urge that I had to give them something in return for
all I was receiving was a measure of how much I loved them at that school.
One day, in the first grade, I participated in a program that was put on
before the whole school. Everyone of us in each class had to do something,
so I went home and discussed it with my parents. We decided I should wear
black pants and a white shirt and sing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound
of Music . When I finished that song, the reaction in the auditorium
overwhelmed me. The applause was thunderous and people were smiling; some of
them were standing. My teachers were crying and I just couldn't believe it.
I had made them all happy. It was such a great feeling. I felt a little
confused too, because I didn't do anything special. I was just singing the
way I sang at home every night. When you're performing, you don't realise
what you sound like or how you're coming across. You just open your mouth
Soon Dad was grooming us for talent contests. He was a great trainer, and he
spent a lot of money and time working with us. Talent is something that God
gives to a performer, but our father taught us how to cultivate it. I think
we also had a certain instinct for show business. We loved to perform and we
put everything we had into it. He's sit at home with us every day after
school and rehearse us. We'd perform for him and he'd critique us. If you
messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch. My
father was real strict with us - real strict. Marlon was the one who got in
trouble all the time. On the other hand, I'd get beaten for things that
happened mostly outside rehearsal. Dad would make me so mad and hurt that
I'd try to get back at him and get beaten all the more. I'd take a shoe and
throw it at him, or I'd just fight back, swinging my fists. That's why I got
it more than all my brothers combined. I would fight back and my father
would kill me, just tear me up. Mother told me I'd fight back even when I
was very little, but I don't remember that. I do remember running under
tables to get away from him, and making him angrier. We had a turbulent
Most of the time, however, we just rehearsed. We always rehearsed.
Sometimes, late at night, we'd have time to play games or with our toys.
There might be a game of hide-and-go-seek or we'd jump rope, but that was
about it. The majority of our time was spent working. I clearly remember
running into the house with my brothers when my father came home, because
we'd be in big trouble if we weren't ready to start rehearsals on time.
Through all this, my mother was completely supportive. She had been the one
who first recognised our talent and she continued to help us realise our
potential. It's hard to imagine that we would have gotten where we did
without her love and good humour. She worried about the stress we were under
and the long hours of rehearsal, but we wanted to be the best we could be
and we really loved music.
Music was important in Gary. We had our own radio stations and nightclubs,
and there was no shortage of people who wanted to be on them. After Dad ran
our Saturday afternoon rehearsals, he'd go see a local show or even drive
all the way to Chicago to see someone perform. He was always watching for
things that could help us down the road. He'd come home and tell us what
he'd seen and who was doing what. He kept up on all the latest stuff,
whether it was a local theatre that ran contests we could enter or a
Cavalcade of Stars show with great acts whose clothes or moves we might
adapt. Sometimes I wouldn't see Dad until I got back from Kingdom Hall on
Sundays, but as soon as I ran into the house he'd be telling me what he'd
seen the night before. He'd assure me I could dance on one leg like James
Brown if I'd only try this step. There I'd be, fresh out of church, and back
in show business.
We started collecting trophies with our act when I was six. Our lineup was
set; the group featured me at second from the left, and Jackie on my right.
Tito and his guitar took stage right, with Marlon next to him. Jackie was
getting tall and he towered over Marlon and me. We kept that setup for
contest after contest and it worked well. While other groups we'd meet would
fight among themselves and quit, we were becoming more polished and
experienced. The people in Gary who came regularly to see the talent shows
got to know us, so we would try to top ourselves and surprise them. We
didn't want them to begin to feel bored by our act. We knew change was
always good, that it helped us grow, so we were never afraid of it.
Winning an amateur night or talent show in a ten-minute, two-song set took
as much energy as a ninety-minute concert. I'm convinced that because
there's no room for mistakes, your concentration burns you up inside more on
one or two songs than it does when you have the luxury of twelve or fifteen
in a set. These talent shows were our professional education. Sometimes we'd
drive hundreds of miles to do one song or two and hope the crowd wouldn't be
against us because we weren't local talent. We were competing against people
of all ages and skills, from drill teams to comedians to other singers and
dancers like us. We had to grab that audience and keep it. Nothing was left
to chance, so clothes, shoes, hair, everything had to be the way Dad planned
it. We really looked amazingly professional. After all this planning, if we
performed the songs the way we rehearsed them, the awards would take care of
themselves. This was true even when we were in the Wallace High part of town
where the neighbourhood had its own performers and cheering sections and we
were challenging them right in their own backyards. Naturally, local
performers always had their own very loyal fans, so whenever we went off our
turf and onto someone else's, it was very hard. When the master of
ceremonies held his hand over our heads for the "applause meter," we wanted
to make sure that the crowd knew we had given them more than anyone else.
As players, Jermaine, Tito, and the rest of us were under tremendous
pressure. Our manger was the kind who reminded us that James Brown would
fine his Famous Flames if they missed a cue or bent a note during a
performance. As lead singer, I felt I - more than the others - couldn't
afford an "off night." I can remember being onstage at night after being
sick in bed all day. It was hard to concentrate at those times, yet I knew
all the things my brothers and I had to do so well that I could have
performed the routines in my sleep. At times like that, I had to remind
myself not to look in the crowd for someone I knew, or at the emcee, both of
which can distract a young performer. We did songs that people knew from the
radio or songs that my father knew were already classics. If you messed up,
you heard about it because the fans knew those songs and they knew how they
were supposed to sound. If you were going to change an arrangement, it
needed to sound better than the original.
We won the citywide talent show when I was eight with our version of the
Temptations' song "My Girl." The contest was held just a few blocks away at
Roosevelt High. From Jermaine's opening bass notes and Tito's first guitar
licks to all of us singing the chorus, we had people on their feet for the
whole song. Jermaine and I traded verses while Marlon and Jackie spun like
tops. It was a wonderful feeling for all of us to pass that trophy, our
biggest yet, back and forth between us. Eventually it was propped on the
front seat like a baby and we drove home with Dad telling us, "When you do
it like you did tonight they can't not give it to you."
We were now Gary city champions and Chicago was our next target because it
was the area that offered the steadiest work and the best word of mouth for
miles and miles. We began to plan our strategy in earnest. My father's group
played the Chicago sound of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but he was
open-minded enough to see that the more upbeat, slicker sounds that appealed
to us kids had a lot to offer. We were lucky because some people his age
weren't that hip. In fact, we knew musicians who thought the sixties sound
was beneath people their age, but not Dad. He recognised great singing when
he heard it, even telling us that he saw the great doo-wop group from Gary,
the Spaniels, when they were stars not that much older than we. When Smokey
Robinson of the Miracles sang a song like "Tracks of My Tears" or "Ooo, Baby
Baby," he'd be listening as hard as we were. The sixties didn't leave
Chicago behind musically, Great singers like the Impressions with Curtis
Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Major Lance, and Tyrone Davis were playing all over
the city at the same places we were. At this point my father was managing us
full-time, with only a part-time shift at the mill. Mom had some doubts
about the soundness of this decision, not because she didn't think we were
good but because she didn't know anyone else who was spending the majority
of his time trying to break his children into the music business. She was
even less thrilled when Dad told her he had booked us as a regular act at
Mr. Lucky's, a Gary nightspot. We were being forced to spend our weekends in
Chicago and other places trying to win an ever-increasing number of amateur
shows, and these trips were expensive, so the job at Mr. Lucky's was a way
to make it all possible. Mom was surprised at the response we were getting
and she was very pleased with the awards and the attention, but she worried
about us a lot. She worried about me because of my age. "This is quite a
life for a nine-year-old," she would say, staring intently at my father.
I don't know what my brothers and I expected, but the nightclub crowds
weren't the same as the Roosevelt High crowds. We were playing between bad
comedians, cocktail organists, and strippers. With my Witness upbringing,
Mom was concerned that I was hanging out with the wrong people and getting
introduced to things I'd be better off learning much later in life. She
didn't have to worry; just one look at some of those strippers wasn't going
to get me that interested in trouble - certainly not at nine years old! That
was an awful way to live, though, and it made us all the more determined to
move on up the circuit and as far away from that life as we could go.
Being at Mr. Lucky's meant that for the first time in our lives we had a
whole show to do - five sets a night, six nights a week - and if Dad could
get us something out of town for the seventh night, he was going to do it.
We were working hard, but the bar crowds weren't bad to us. They liked James
Brown and Sam and Dave just as much as we did and, besides, we were
something extra that came free with the drinking and the carrying on, so
they were surprised and cheerful. We even had some fun with them on one
number, the Joe Tex song "Skinny Legs and All." We'd start the song and
somewhere in the middle I'd go out into the audience, crawl under the
tables, and pull up the ladies' skirts to look under. People would throw
money as I scurried by, and when I began to dance, I'd scoop up all the
dollars and coins that had hit the floor earlier and push them into the
pockets of my jacket.
I wasn't really nervous when we began playing in because of all the
experience I'd had with talent show audiences. I was always ready to go out
and perform, you know, just do it - sing and dance and have some fun.
We worked in more than one club that had strippers in those days. I used to
stand in the wings of this one place in Chicago and watch a lady whose name
was Mary Rose. I must have been nine or ten. This girl would take off her
clothes and her panties and throw them to the audience. The men would pick
them up and sniff them and yell. My brothers and I would be watching all
this, taking it in, and my father wouldn't mind. We were exposed to a lot
doing that kind of circuit. In one place they had cut a little hole in the
musician's dressing room wall that also happened to act as a wall in the
ladies' bathroom. You could peek through this hole, and I saw stuff I've
never forgotten. Guys on that circuit were so wild, they did stuff like
drilling little holes into the walls of the ladies' loo all the time. Of
course, I'm sure that my brothers and I were fighting over who got to look
through the hole. "Get outta the way, it's my turn!" Pushing each other away
to make room for ourselves.
Later, when we did the Apollo Theater in New York, I saw something that
really blew me away because I didn't know things like that existed. I had
seen quite a few strippers, but that night this one girl with gorgeous
eyelashes and long hair came out and did her routine. She put on a great
performance. All of a sudden, at the end, she took off her wig, pulled a
pair of big oranges out of her bra, and revealed that she was a hard-faced
guy under all that makeup. That blew me away. I was only a child and
couldn't even conceive of anything like that. But I looked out at the
theatre audience and they were going for it. applauding wildly and cheering.
I'm just a little kid, standing in the wings, watching this crazy stuff.
I was blown away.
As I said, I received quite an education as a child. More than most. Perhaps
this freed me to concentrate on other aspects of my life as an adult.
One day, not long after we'd been doing successfully in Chicago clubs, Dad
brought home a tape of some songs we'd never heard before. We were
accustomed to doing popular stuff off the radio, so we were curious why he
began playing these songs over and over again, just one guy singing none too
well with some guitar chords in the background. Dad told us that the man on
the tape wasn't really a performer but a songwriter who owned a recording
studio in Gary. His name was Mr. Keith and he had given us a week to
practice his songs to see if we could make a record out of them. Naturally,
we were excited. We wanted to make a record, any record.
We worked strictly on the sound, ignoring the dancing routines we'd normally
work up for a new song. It wasn't as much fun to do a song that none of us
knew, but we were already professional enough to hide our disappointment and
give it all we could. When we were ready and felt we had done our best with
the material, Dad got us on tape after a few false starts and more than a
few pep talks, of course. After a day or two of trying to figure out whether
Mr. Keith liked the tape we had made for him, Dad suddenly appeared with
more of his songs for us to learn for our first recording session.
Mr. Keith, like Dad, was a mill worker who loved music, only he was more
into the recording and business end. His studio and label were called
Steeltown. Looking back on all this, I realize Mr. Keith was just as excited
as we were. His studio was downtown, and we went early one Saturday morning
before "The Road Runner Show," my favourite show at the time. Mr. Keith met
us at the door and opened the studio. He showed us a small glass booth with
all kinds of equipment in it and explained what various tasks each
performed. It didn't look like we'd have to lean over any more tape
recorders, at least not in this studio. I put on some big metal headphones,
which came halfway down my neck, and tried to make myself look ready for
As my brothers were figuring out where to plug in their instruments and
stand, some backup singers and a horn section arrived. At first I assumed
they were there to make a record after us. We were delighted and amazed when
we found out they were there to record with us. We looked over at Dad, but
he didn't change expression. He'd obviously known about it and approved.
Even then people knew not to throw Dad surprises. We were told to listen to
Mr. Keith, who would instruct us while we were in the booth. If we did as he
said, the record would take care of itself.
After a few hours, we finished Mr. Keith's first song. Some of the backup
singers and horn players hadn't made records either and found it difficult,
but they also didn't have a perfectionist for a manager, so they weren't
used to doing things over and over the way we were. It was at times like
these that we realized how hard Dad worked to make us consummate
professionals. We came back the next few Saturdays, putting the songs we'd
rehearsed during the week into the can and taking home a new tape of Mr.
Keith's each time. One Saturday, Dad even brought his guitar in to perform
with us. It was the one and only time he ever recorded with us. After the
records were pressed, Mr. Keith gave us some copies so that we could sell
them between sets and after shows. We knew that wasn't how the big groups
did it, but everyone had to start someplace, and in those days, having a
record with your group's name on it was quite something. We felt very
That first Steeltown single, "Big Boy," had a mean bass line. It was a nice
song about a kid who wanted to fall in love with some girl. Of course, in
order to get the full picture, you have to imagine a skinny nine-year-old
singing this song. The words said I didn't want to hear fairy tales any
more, but in truth I was far too young to grasp the real meanings of most of
the words in these songs. I just sang what they gave me.
When that record with its killer bass line began to get radio play in Gary,
we became a big deal in out neighborhood. No one could believe we had our
own record. We had a hard time believing it.
After that first Steeltown record, we began to aim for all the big talent
shows in Chicago. Usually the other acts would look me over carefully when
they met me, because I was so little, particularly the ones who went on
after us. One day Jackie was cracking up, like someone had told him the
funniest joke in the world. This wasn't a good sign right before a show, and
I could tell Dad was worried he was going to screw up onstage. Dad went over
to say a word to him, but Jackie whispered something in his ear and soon Dad
was holding his sides, laughing. I wanted to know the joke too. Dad said
proudly that Jackie had overheard the headlining act talking among
themselves. One guy said, "We'd better not let those Jackson 5 cut us
tonight with that midget they've got."
I was upset at first because my feelings were hurt. I thought they were
being mean. I couldn't help it that I was the shortest, but soon all the
other brothers were cracking up too. Dad explained that they weren't
laughing at me. He told me that I should be proud, the group was talking
trash because they thought I was a grown-up posing as a child like one of
the Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz. Dad said that if I had those slick guys
talking like the neighborhood kids who gave us grief back in Gary, then we
had Chicago on the run.
We still had some running of our own to do. After we played some pretty good
clubs in Chicago, Dad signed us up for the Royal Theatre amateur night
competition in town. He had gone to see B. B. King at the Regal the night he
made his famous live album. When Dad gave Tito that sharp red guitar years
earlier, we had teased him by thinking of girls he could name his guitar
after, like B. B. King's Lucille. We won that show for three straight weeks,
with a new song every week to keep the regular members of the audience
guessing. Some of the other performers complained that it was greedy for us
to keep coming back, but they were after the same thing we were. There was a
policy that if you won the amateur night three straight times, you'd be
invited back to do a paid show for thousands of people, not dozens like the
audiences we were playing to in bars. We got that opportunity and the show
was headlined by Gladys Knight and the Pips, who were breaking in a new song
no one knew called "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." It was a heady night.
After Chicago, we had one more big amateur show we really felt we needed to
win: the Apollo Theatre in New York City. A lot of Chicago people thought a
win at the Apollo was just a good luck charm and nothing more, but Dad saw
it as much more than that. He knew New York had a high caliber of talent
just like Chicago and he knew there were more record people and professional
musicians in New York than Chicago. If we could make it in New York, we
could make it anywhere. That's what a win at the Apollo meant to us.
Chicago had sent a kind of scouting report on us to New York and our
reputation was such that the Apollo entered us in the "Superdog" finals,
even though we hadn't been to any of the preliminary competitions. By this
time, Gladys Knight had already talked to us about coming to Motown, as had
Bobby Taylor, a member of the Vancouvers, with whom my father had become
friendly. Dad had told them we'd be happy to audition for Motown, but that
was in out future. We got to the Apollo at 125th Street early enough to get
a guided tour. We walked through the theatre and stared at all of the
pictures of the stars who'd played there, white as well as black. The
manager concluded by showing us to the dressing room, but by then I had
found pictures of all my favourites.
While my brothers and I were paying dues on the so-called "chitlin'
circuit," opening for other acts, I carefully watched all the stars because
I wanted to learn as much as I could. I'd stare at their feet, the way they
held their arms, the way they gripped a microphone, trying to decipher what
they were doing and why they were doing it. After studying James Brown from
the wings, I knew every step, every grunt, every spin and turn. I have to
say he would give a performance that would exhaust you, just wear you out
emotionally. His whole physical presence, the fire coming out of his pores,
would be phenomenal. You'd feel every bead of sweat on his face and you'd
know what he was going through. I've never seen anybody perform like him.
Unbelievable, really. When I watched somebody I liked, I'd be there. James
Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O'Jays - they all used to really
work an audience. I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than
from anyone or anything else. All of this was a very important part of my
We would stand offstage, behind the curtains, and watch everyone come off
after performing and they'd be all sweaty. I'd just stand aside in awe and
watch them walk by. And they would all wear these beautiful patent-leather
shoes. My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather
shoes. I remember being so heartbroken because they didn't make them in
little boys' sizes. I'd go from store to store looking for patent-leather
shoes and they'd say, "We don't make them that small." I was so sad because
I wanted to have shoes that looked the way those stage shoes looked,
polished and shining, turning red and orange when the lights hit them. Oh,
how I wanted some patent-leather shoes like the ones Jackie Wilson wore.
Most of the time I'd be alone backstage. My brothers would be upstairs
eating and talking and I'd be down in the wings, crouching real low, holding
on to the dusty, smelly curtain and watching the show. I mean, I really did
watch every step, every move, every twist, every turn, every grind, every
emotion, every light move. That was my education and my recreation. I was
always there when I had free time. My father, my brothers, other musicians,
they all knew where to find me. They would tease me about it, but I was so
absorbed in what I was seeing, or in remembering what I had just seen, that
I didn't care. I remember all those theatres: the Regal, the Uptown, the
Apollo - too many to name. The talent that came out of those places is of
mythical proportions. The greatest education in the world is watching the
masters at work. You couldn't teach a person what I've learned just standing
and watching. Some musicians - Springsteen and U2, for example - may feel
they got their education from the streets. I'm a performed at heart. I got
mine from the stage.
Jackie Wilson was on the wall at the Apollo. The photographer captured him
with one leg up, twisted, but not out of position from catching the mike
stand he'd just whipped back and forth. He could have been singing a sad
lyric like "Lonely Teardrops," and yet he had that audience so bug-eyed with
his dancing that no one could feel sad or lonely.
Sam and Dave's picture was down the corridor, next to an old big-band shot.
Dad had become friendly with Sam Moore. I remember being happily amazed that
he was nice to me when I met him for the first time. I had been singing his
songs for so long that I thought he'd want to box my ears. And not far from
them was "The King of Them All, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. Please Please Himself,"
James Brown. Before he came along, a singer was a singer and a dancer was a
dancer. A singer might have danced and a dancer might have sung, but unless
you were Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, you probably did one better than the
other, especially in a live performance. But he changed all that. No
spotlight could keep up with him when he skidded across the stage - you had
to flood it! I wanted to be that good.
We won the Apollo amateur night competition, and I felt like going back to
those photos on the walls and thanking my "teachers." Dad was so happy he
said he could have flown back to Gary that night. He was on top of the world
and so were we. My brothers and I had gotten straight A's and we were hoping
we might get to skip a "grade." I certainly sensed that we wouldn't be doing
talent shows and strip joints much longer.
In the summer of 1968 we were introduced to the music of a family group that
was going to change our sound and our lives. They didn't all have the same
last name, they were black and white, men and women, and they were called
Sly and the Family Stone. They had some amazing hits over the years, such as
"Dance to the Music," "Stand," "Hot Fun in the Summertime." My brothers
would point at me when they heard the line about the midget standing tall
and by now I'd laugh along. We heard these songs all over the dial, even on
the rock stations. They were a tremendous influence on all of us Jacksons
and we owe them a lot.
After the Apollo, we kept playing with one eye on the map and one ear to the
phone. Mom and Dad had a rule about no more than five minutes a call, but
when we came back from the Apollo, even five minutes was too long. We had to
keep the lines clear in case anyone from a record company wanted to get in
touch with us. We lived in fear of having them get a busy signal. We wanted
to hear from one record company in particular, and if they called, we wanted
While we waited, we found out that someone who had seen us at the Apollo had
recommended us to "The David Frost Show" in New York City. We were going to
be on TV! That was the biggest thrill we'd ever had. I told everyone at
school, and told the ones who didn't believe me twice. We were going to
drive out there in a few days. I was counting the hours. I had imagined the
whole trip, trying to figure out what the studio would be like and how it
would be to look into a television camera.
I came home with the travelling work my teacher had made up in advance. We
had one more dress rehearsal and then we'd make a final song selection. I
wondered which songs we'd be doing.
That afternoon, Dad said the trip to New York was cancelled. We all stopped
in our tracks and just stared at him.
We were shocked. I was ready to cry. We had been about to get our big break.
How could they do this to us? What was going on? Why had Mr. Frost changed
his mind? I was reeling and I think everyone else was, too. "I cancelled
it," my father announced calmly. Again we all stared at him, unable to
speak. "Motown called." A chill ran down my spine.
I remember the days leading up to that trip with near-perfect clarity. I can
see myself waiting outside Randy's first-grade classroom. It was Marlon's
turn to walk him home, but we switched for today.
Randy's teacher wished me luck in Detroit, because Randy had told her we
were going to Motown to audition. He was so excited that I had to remind
myself that he didn't really know what Detroit was. All the family had been
talking about was Motown, and Randy didn't even know what a city was. The
teacher told me he was looking for Motown on the globe in the classroom. She
said that in her opinion we should do "You Don't Know Like I Know" the way
she saw us do it at the Regal in Chicago when a bunch of teachers drove over
to see us. I helped Randy put his coat on and politely agreed to keep it in
mind - knowing that we couldn't do a Sam and Dave song at a Motown audition
because they were on Stax, a rival label. Dad told us the companies were
serious about that kind of stuff, so he wanted us to know there'd be no
messing around when we got there. He looked at me and said he'd like to see
his ten-year-old singer make it to eleven.
We left the Garrett Elementary School building for the short walk home, but
we had to hurry. I remember getting anxious as a car swept by, then another.
Randy took my hand, and we waved to the crossing guard. I knew La Toya would
have to go out if her way tomorrow to take Randy to school because Marlon
and I would be staying over in Detroit with the others.
The last time we played at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, we left right after
the show and got back to Gary at five o'clock in the morning. I slept in the
car most of the way, so going to school that morning wasn't as bad as it
might have been. But by the afternoon three o'clock rehearsal I was dragging
around like someone with lead weights for feet.
We could have left that night right after our set, since we were third on
the bill, but that would have meant missing the headliner, Jackie Wilson.
I'd seen him on other stages, but at the Fox he and his band were on a
rising stage that moved up as he start his show. Tired as I was after school
the next day, I remember trying some of those moves in rehearsal after
practising in front of a long mirror in the bathroom at school while the
other kids looked on. My father was pleased and we incorporated those steps
into one of my routines.
Just before Randy and I turned the corner onto Jackson Street, there was a
big puddle. I looked for cars but there weren't any, so I let go of Randy's
hand and jumped the puddle, catching on my toes so I could spin without
getting the cuffs of my corduroys wet. I looked back at Randy, knowing that
he wanted to do the things I did. He stepped back to get a running start,
but I realised that it was a pretty big puddle, too big for him to cross
without getting wet, so, being a big brother first and a dance teacher
second, I caught him before he landed short and got wet.
Across the street the neighbourhood kids were buying candy, and even some of
the kids who were giving me a hard time at school asked when we were going
to Motown. I told them and bought candy for them and Randy, too, with my
allowance. I didn't want Randy to feel bad about my going away.
As we approached the house I heard Marlon yell, "Someone shut that door!"
The side of out VW minibus was wide open, and I shuddered, thinking about
how cold it was going to be on the long ride up to Detroit. Marlon had beat
us home and was already helping Jackie load the bus with our stuff. Jackie
and Tito got home in plenty of time for once: They were supposed to have
basketball practice, but the winter in Indiana had been nothing but slush
and we were anxious to get a good start. Jackie was on the high school
basketball team that year, and Dad liked to say that the next time we went
to play in Indianapolis would be when Roosevelt went to the state
championships. The Jackson 5 would play between the evening and morning
games, and Jackie would sink the winning shot for the title. Dad liked to
tease us, but you never knew what might happen with the Jacksons. He wanted
us to be good at many things, not just music. I think maybe he got that
drive from his father, who taught school. I know my teachers were never as
hard on us as he was, and they were getting paid to be tough and demanding.
Mom came to the door and gave us the thermos and the sandwiches she had
packed. I remember her telling me not to rip the dress shirt she had packed
for me after sewing it up the night before. Randy and I helped put some
things in the bus and then went back into the kitchen, where Rebbie was
keeping one eye on Dad's supper and the other on little Janet, who was in
the high chair.
Rebbie's life was never easy as the oldest. We knew that as soon as the
Motown audition was over, we'd find out if we had to move or not. If we did,
she was going to move South with her fiance. She always ran things when Mom
was at night school finishing the high school diploma she was denied because
of her illness. I couldn't believe it when Mom told us she was going to get
her diploma. I remember worrying that she'd have to go to school with kids
Jackie's or Tito's age and that they'd laugh at her. I remember how she
laughed when I told her this and how she patiently explained that she'd be
with other grown-ups. It was interesting having a mother who did homework
like the rest of us.
Loading up the bus was easier than usual. Normally Ronnie and Johnny would
have come to back us up, but Motown's own musicians would be playing being
us, so we were going alone. Jermaine was in our room finishing some of his
assignments when I walked in. I knew he wanted to get them out of the way.
He told me that we ought to take off for Motown by ourselves and leave Dad,
since Jackie had taken driver's ed and was in possession of a set of keys.
We both laughed, but deep down I couldn't imagine going without Dad. Even on
the occasions when Mom led out after-school rehearsals because Dad hadn't
come home from his shift on time, it was still like having him there because
she acted as his eyes and ears. She always knew what had been good the night
before and what had gotten sloppy today. Dad would pick it up from there at
night. It seemed to me that they almost gave each other signals or something
- Dad could always tell if we had been playing like we were supposed to by
some invisible indication from Mom.
There was no long good-bye at the door when we left for Motown. Mom was used
to our being away for days, and during school vacations. LaToya pouted a
little because she wanted to go. She had only seen us in Chicago, and we had
never been able to stay long enough in places like Boston of Phoenix to
bring her back anything. I think our lives must have seemed pretty glamorous
to her because she had to stay home and go to school. Rebbie had her hands
full trying to put Janet to sleep, but she called good-bye and waved. I gave
Randy a last pat on the head and we were off.
Dad and Jackie went over the map as we drove away, mostly out of habit,
because we had been to Detroit before, of course. We passed Mr. Keith's
recording studio downtown by City Hall as we made our way through town. We
had done some demos at Mr. Keith's that Dad sent to Motown after the
Steeltown record. The sun was going down when we hit the highway. Marlon
announced that if we heard one of our records on WVON, it was going to bring
us luck. We all nodded. Dad asked us if we remembered what WVON stood for as
he nudged Jackie to keep quiet. I kept looking out the window, thinking
about the possibilities that lay ahead, but Jermaine jumped in. "Voice of
the Negro," he said. Soon we were calling roll all over the dial. "WGN -
World's Greatest Newspaper." The Chicago Tribune owned it.) "WLS - World's
Largest Store." (Sears) "WCFL . . ." We stopped, stumped. "Chicago
Federation of Labor," Dad said, motioning for the thermos. We turned onto
I-94, and the Gary station faded into a Kalamazoo station. We began flipping
around, looking for Beatle music on CKLW from Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
I had always been a Monopoly fan at home, and there was something about
driving to Motown that was a little like that game. In Monopoly you go
around the board buying things and making decisions; the "chitlin' circuit"
of theatres where we played and won contests was kind of like a Monopoly
board full of possibilities and pitfalls. After all the stops along the way,
we finally landed at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, which was definitely Park
Place for young performers like us. Now we were on our way up Boardwalk,
heading for Motown. Would we win the game or slide past Go with a long board
separating us from our goal for another round?
There was something changing in me, and I could feel it, even shivering in
the minibus. For years we'd make the drive over to Chicago wondering if we
were good enough to ever get out of Gary, and we were. Then we took the
drive to New York, certain that we'd fall off the edge of the earth if we
weren't good enough to make it there. Even those nights in Philadelphia and
Washington didn't reassure me enough to keep me from wondering if there
wasn't someone or some group we didn't know about in New York who could beat
us. When we tore it down at the Apollo, we finally felt that nothing could
stand in our way. We were going to Motown, and nothing there was going to
surprise us either. We were going to surprise them, just like we always did.
Dad pulled the typewritten directions out of the glove compartment and we
pulled off the highway, passing the Woodward Avenue exit. There weren't many
people on the streets because it was a school night for everybody else.
Dad was a little nervous about whether our accommodations would be okay,
which surprised me until I realised the Motown people had picked the hotel.
We weren't used to having things done for us. We liked to be our own bosses.
Dad had always been our booking agent, travel agent, and manager. When he
wasn't taking care of the arrangements, Mom was. So it was no wonder that
even Motown managed to make Dad feel suspicious that he should have made the
reservations, that he should have handled everything.
We stayed at the Gotham Hotel. The reservations had been made and everything
was in order. There was a TV in our room, but all the stations had signed
off, and with the audition at ten o'clock, we weren't going to get to stay
up any later anyway. Dad put us right to bed, locked the door, and went out.
Jermaine and I were too tired to even talk.
We were all up on time the next morning; Dad saw to that. But, in truth, we
were just as excited as he was and hopped out of bed when we called us. The
audition was unusual for us because we hadn't played in many places where
they expected us to be professional. We knew it was going to be difficult to
judge whether we were doing well. We were used to audience response whether
we were competing or just performing at a club, but Dad had told us the
longer we stayed, the more they wanted to hear.
We climbed into the VW, after cereal and milk at the coffee shop. I noticed
they offered grits on the menu, so I knew there were a lot of Southern
people who stayed there. We had never been to the South then and wanted to
visit Mom's part of the country someday. We wanted to have a sense of our
roots and those of other black people, especially after what had happened to
Dr. King. I remember so well the day he died. Everyone was torn up. We
didn't rehearse that night. I went to Kingdom Hall with Mom and some of the
others. People were crying like they had lost a member of their own family.
Even the men who were usually pretty unemotional were unable to control
their grief. I was too young to grasp the full tragedy of the situation, but
when I look back on that day now, it makes me want to cry - for Dr. King,
for his family, and for all of us.
Jermaine was the first to spot the studio, which was known as Hitsville,
U.S.A. It looked kind of run-down, which was not what I'd expected. We
wondered who we might see, who might be there making a record that day. Dad
had coached us to let him do all the talking. Our job was to perform like
we'd never performed before. And that was asking a lot, because we always
put everything into each performance, but we knew what he meant.
There were a lot of people waiting inside, but Dad said the password and a
man in a shirt and tie came out to meet us. He knew each of our names, which
astounded us. He asked us to leave our coats there and follow him. The other
people just stared through us like we were ghosts. I wondered who they were
and what their stories were. Had they travelled far? Had they been here day
after day hoping to get in without an appointment?
When we entered the studio, one of the Motown guys was adjusting a movie
camera. There was an area set up with instruments and microphones. Dad
disappeared into one of the sound booths to talk to someone. I tried to
pretend that I was at the Fox Theatre, on the rising stage, and this was
just business as usual. I decided, looking around, that if I ever built my
own studio, I'd get a mike like the one they had at the Apollo, which rose
out of the floor. I nearly fell on my face once running down those basement
steps while trying to find out where it went when it slowly disappeared
beneath the stage floor.
The last song we sang was "Who's Lovin' You." When it ended, no one
applauded or said a word. I couldn't stand not knowing, so I blurted, "How
was that?" Jermaine shushed me. The older guys who were backing us up were
laughing about something. I looked at them out of the corner of my eye.
"Jackson Jive, huh?" one of them called out with a big grin on his face. I
was confused, I think my brothers were too.
The man who had led us back said, "Thanks for coming up." We looked at Dad's
face for some indication, but he didn't seem pleased or disappointed. It was
still daylight out when we left. We took I-94 back to Gary, subdued, knowing
there was homework to do for class tomorrow, wondering if that was all there
was to that.
Chapter Two – The Promised Land
We were jubilant when we learned we had passed the Motown audition. I
remember Berry Gordy sitting us all down and saying that we were going to
make history together. "I'm gonna make you the biggest thing in the world,"
he said, "and you're gonna be written about in history books." He really
said that to us. We were leaning forward, listening to him, and saying,
"Okay! Okay!" I'll never forget that. We were all over at his house, and it
was like a fairy tale come true listening to this powerful, talented man
tell us we were going to be very big. "Your first record will be a number
one, your second record will be a number one, and so will your third record.
Three number one records in a row. You'll hit the charts just as Diana Ross
and the Supremes did." This was almost unheard of in those days, but he was
right; we turned around and did just that. Three in a row.
So Diana didn't find us first, but I don't think we'll ever be able to repay
Diana properly for all she did for us in those days. When we finally moved
to Southern California, we actually lived with Diana and stayed with her for
more than a year on a part-time basis. Some of us lived with Berry Gordy and
some of us with Diana, and then we would switch. She was so wonderful,
mothering us and making us feel right at home. She really helped take care
of us for at least a year and a half while my parents closed up the Gary
house and looked for a house we could all live in here in California. It was
great for us because Berry and Diana lived on the same street in Beverly
Hills. We could walk up to Berry's house and then go back to Diana's. Most
of the time I'd spend the day at Diana's and the night at Berry's. This was
an important period in my life because Diana loved art and encouraged me to
appreciate it too. She took the time to educate me about it. We'd go out
almost every day, just the two of us, and buy pencils and paint. When we
weren't drawing or painting, we'd go to museums. She introduced me to the
works of the great artists like Michelangelo and Degas and that was the
start of my lifelong interest in art. She really taught me a great deal. It
was so new to me and exciting. It was really different from what I was used
to doing, which was living and breathing music, rehearsing day in and day
out. You wouldn't think a big star like Diana would take the time to teach a
kid to paint, to give him an education in art, but she did and I loved her
for it. I still do. I'm crazy about her. She was my mother, my lover, and my
sister all combined in one amazing person.
Those were truly wild days for me and my brothers. When we flew to
California from Chicago, it was like being in another country, another
world. To come from our part of Indiana, which is so urban and often bleak,
and to land in Southern California was like having the world transformed
into a wonderful dream. I was uncontrollable back then. I was all over the
place - Disneyland, Sunset Strip, the beach. My brothers loved it too, and
we got into everything, like kids who had just visited a candy store for the
first time. We were awestruck by California; trees had oranges and leaves on
them in the middle of winter. There were palm trees and beautiful sunsets,
and the weather was so warm. Every day was special. I would be doing
something that was fun and wouldn't want it to end, but then I'd realise
there was something else to do later that was going to be just as enjoyable
and that I could look forward to just as much. Those were heady days.
One of the best parts of being there was meeting all the big Motown stars
who had emigrated to California along with Berry Gordy after he moved from
Detroit. I remember when I first shook Smokey Robinson's hand. It was like
shaking hands with a king. My eyes lit up with stars, I remember telling my
mother that his hand felt as if it was layered with soft pillows. You don't
think about the little impressions people walk away with when you're a star
yourself, but the fans do. At least, I know I did. I mean, I walked around
saying, "His hand is so soft ." When I think about it now, it sounds silly,
but it made a big impression on me. I had shaken Smokey Robinson's hand.
There are so many artists and musicians and writers I admire. When I was
young, the people I watched were the real showmen - James Brown, Sammy
Davis, Jr., Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly. A great showman touches everybody;
that's the real test of greatness and these men have it. Like Michelangelo's
work, it touches you, I don't care who you are. I am always excited when I
get a chance to meet someone whose work has affected me in some way. Maybe
I've read a book that has touched me deeply or made me think about things
that I haven't focused on before. A certain song or style of singing can
excite me or move me and become a favourite that I'll never tire of hearing.
A picture or a painting can reveal a universe. In the same vein, an actor's
performance or a collective performance can transform me.
In those days Motown had never recorded a kids' group. In fact the only
child singer they had ever produced was Stevie Wonder. So Motown was
determined that if they were going to promote kids, they'd promote the kind
of kids who were good at more than just singing and dancing. They wanted
people to like us because of who we were, not just because of our records.
They wanted us to set an example by sticking to our schoolwork and being
friendly to our fans, reporters, and everyone who came in contact with us.
This wasn't hard for us because our mother had raised us to be polite and
considerate. It was second nature. Our only problem with schoolwork was that
once we became well known, we couldn't go to school because people would
come into our classrooms through the windows, looking for an autograph or a
picture. I was trying to keep up with my classes and not to be the cause of
disruptions, but it finally became impossible and we were given tutors to
teach us at home.
During this period a lady named Suzanne de Passe was having a great effect
on our lives. She worked for Motown, and it was she who trained us
religiously once we moved to L.A. She also became a manager for the Jackson
5. We lived with her occasionally, ate with her, and even played with her.
We were a rowdy, high-spirited bunch, and she was young herself and full of
fun. She really contributed a lot toward the shaping of the Jackson 5, and
I'll never be able to thank her enough for all she did.
I remember Suzanne showing us these charcoal sketches of the five of us. In
each sketch we had a different hairstyle. In another set of colour drawings
we were all pictured in different clothes that could be switched around like
Colorforms. After we all decided on the hairstyles, they took us to a barber
so he could make us match up with our pictures. Then, after she showed us
the clothes, we went down to a wardrobe department where they gave us
outfits to try on. They'd see us in one set of clothes, decide the clothes
weren't right, and we'd all go back to the Colorforms to "try on" some more.
We had classes in manners and grammar. They gave us a list of questions, and
they said they were the kinds of questions that we could expect people to
ask us. We were always being asked about our interests and our hometown and
how we liked singing together. Fans and reporters alike wanted to know how
old we each were when we started performing. It was hard to have your life
turn into public property, even if you appreciated that people were
interested in you because of your music.
The Motown people tested us on the answers to questions we hadn't heard from
anyone yet. They tested us on grammar. And table manners. When we were
ready, they brought us in for the last alterations on our sleeves and the
trimming of our new Afros.
After all that there was a new song to learn called "I Want You Back." The
song had a story behind it that we found out about little by little. It was
written by someone from Chicago named Freddie Perren. He had been Jerry
Butler's pianist when we opened for Jerry in a Chicago nightclub. He had
felt sorry for these little kids the club owner had hired, figuring the club
couldn't afford to get anyone else. His opinion changed dramatically when he
saw us perform.
As it turned out, "I Want You Back" was orginally called "I Want To Be Free"
and was written for Gladys Knight. Freddie had even thought that Berry might
go over Gladys's head and give the song to the Supremes. Instead, he
mentioned to Jerry that he'd just signed this group of kids from Gary,
Indiana. Freddie put two and two together, realised it was us, and decided
to trust fate.
When we were learning the Steeltown songs back in Gary, Tito and Jermaine
had to pay special attention because they were responsible for playing on
those records. When they heard the demo for "I Want You Back," they listened
to the guitar and bass parts, but Dad explained that Motown didn't expect
them to play on our records; the rhythm track would be taken care of before
we put our vocals down. But he reminded them that this would put more
pressure on them to keep up their practice independently, because we'd have
to duplicate those songs in front of our fans. In the meantime, all of us
had lyrics and cues to learn.
The guys looking after us in the singing department were Freddy Perrin and
Bobby Taylor and Deke Richards, who, along with Hal Davis and another Motown
guy named "Fonce" Mizell, were part of the team that wrote and produced our
first singles. Together these guys were called "The Corporation." We went
over to Richard's apartment to rehearse, and he was impressed that we had
prepared so well. He didn't have to do much tinkering with the vocal
arrangement he'd worked out, and he thought that while we were still hot, we
should go right to the studio and cut our parts. The following afternoon we
went to the studio. We were all so happy with what we got that we took our
rough mix over to Berry Gordy. It was still midafternoon when we arrived at
his studio. We figured that once Berry heard it, we'd be home in time for
But it was one in the morning when I finally slumped in the back seat of
Richard's car, bobbing and steadying my head all the way home to fight off
sleep. Gordy hadn't liked the song we did. We went over every part again,
and when we did, Gordy figured out what changes he had to make in the
arrangement. He was trying new things with us, like a school chorus master
who has everyone singing their part as if they're singing alone, even if you
can't hear him or her distinctly for the crowd. After he was through
rehearsing us as a group, and he had reworked the music, he took me aside,
one on one, to explain my part. He told me exactly what he wanted and how he
wanted me to help him get it. Then he explained everything to Freddie
Perren, who was going to record it. Berry was brilliant in this area. Right
after the single was released, we went in to cut an album. We were
particularly impressed with the "I Want You Back" session then because that
one song took more time (and tape) than all the other songs on the record
combined. That's the way Motown did things in those days because Berry
insisted on perfection and attention to detail. I'll never forget his
persistence. This was his genius. Then and later, I observed every moment of
the sessions where Berry was present and never forgot what I learned. To
this day I use the same principles. Berry was my teacher and a great one. He
could identify the little elements that would make a song great rather than
just good. It was like magic, as if Berry was sprinkling pixie dust over
For me and my brothers, recording for Motown was an exciting experience. Our
team of writers shaped our music by being with us as we recorded it over and
over, molding and sculpting a song until it was just perfect. We would cut a
track over and over for weeks until we got it just as they wanted it. And I
could see while they were doing it that it was getting better and better.
They would change words, arrangements, rhythms, everything. Berry gave them
the freedom to work this way because of his own perfectionist nature. I
guess if they hadn't been doing it, he would have. Berry had such a knack.
He'd just walk into the room where we were working and tell me what to do
and he'd be right. It was amazing.
When "I Want You Back" was released in November 1969, it sold two million
copies in six weeks and went to number one. Our next single, "ABC," came out
in March 1970 and sold two million records in three weeks. I still like the
part where I say, "Siddown, girl! I think I loove you! No, get up, girl,
show me what you can do! " When our third single, "The Love You Save," went
to number one in June of 1970, Berry's promise came true.
When our next single, "I'll Be There," was also a big hit in the fall of
that year, we realised we might even surpass Berry's expectations and be
able to pay him back for all the effort he had made for us.
My brothers and I - our whole family - were very proud. We had created a new
sound for a new decade. It was the first time in recording history that a
bunch of kids had made so many hit records. The Jackson 5 had never had much
competition from kids our own age. In the amateur days there was a kids'
group called the Five Stairsteps that we used to see. They were good, but
they didn't seem to have the strong family unit that we did, and sadly they
broke up. After "ABC" hit the charts in such a big way, we started seeing
other groups that record companies were grooming to ride the bandwagon we
had built. I enjoyed all these groups: the Partridge Family, the Osmonds,
the DeFranco Family. The Osmonds were already around, but they were doing a
much different style of music, like barbershop harmony and crooning. As soon
as we hit, they and the other groups got into soul real fast. We didn't
mind. Competition, as we know, was healthy. Our own relatives thought "One
Bad Apple" was us. I remember being so little that they had a special apple
crate for me to stand on with my name on it so I could reach the microphone.
Microphones didn't go down far enough for kids my age. So many of my
childhood years went by that way, with me standing on that apple box singing
my heart out while other kids were outside playing.
As I said before, in those early days "The Corporation" at Motown produced
and shaped all our music. I remember lots of times when I felt the song
should be sung one way and the producers felt it should be sung another way.
But for a long time I was very obedient and wouldn't say anything about it.
Finally it reached a point where I got fed up with being told exactly how to
sing. This was in 1972 when I was fourteen years old, around the time of the
song "Lookin' Through the Windows." They wanted me to sing a certain way,
and I knew they were wrong. No matter what age you are, if you have it and
you know it, then people should listen to you. I was furious with our
producers and very upset. So I called Berry Gordy and complained. I said
that they had always told me how to sing, and I had agreed all this time,
but now they were getting too . . . mechanical.
So he came into the studio and told them to let me do what I wanted to do. I
think he told them to let me be more free or something. And after that, I
started adding a lot of vocal twists that they really ended up loving. I'd
do a lot of ad-libbing, like twisting words or adding some edge to them.
When Berry was in the studio with us, he would always add something that was
right. He'd go from studio to studio, checking on different aspects of
people's work, often adding elements that made the records better. Walt
Disney used to do the same thing: he'd go check on his various artists and
say, "Well, this character should be more outgoing." I always knew when
Berry was enjoying something I was doing in the studio, because he has this
habit of rolling his tongue in his cheek when he's pleased by something. If
things were really going well, he'd punch the air like the ex-professional
boxer he is.
My three favourite songs from those days are "Never Can Say Goodbye," "I'll
Be There," and "ABC." I'll never forget the first time I heard "ABC." I
thought it was so good. I remember feeling this eagerness to sing that song,
to get in the studio and really make it work for us.
We were still rehearsing daily and working hard - some things didn't change
- but we were grateful to be where we were. There were so many people
pulling for us, and we were so determined ourselves that it seemed anything
Once "I Want You Back" came out, everyone at Motown prepared us for success.
Diana loved it and presented us at a big-name Hollywood discotheque, where
she had us playing in a comfortable party atmosphere like at Berry's.
Following directly on the heels of Diana's event came an invitation to play
at the "Miss Black America" telecast. Being on the show would enable us to
give people a preview of our record and our show. After we got the
invitation, my brothers and I remembered our disappointment at not getting
to go to New York to do our first TV show because Motown had called. Now we
were going to do our first TV show and we were with Motown. Life was very
good. Diana, of course, put the cherry on top. She was going to host "The
Hollywood Palace," and big Saturday night show; it would be her last
appearance with the Supremes and the first major exposure for us. This meant
a lot to Motown, because by then they had decided that our new album would
be called "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5." Never before had a superstar
like Diana passed the torch to a bunch of kids. Motown, Diana, and five kids
from Gary, Indiana, were all pretty excited. By then "I Want You Back" had
come out, and Berry was proven right again; all the stations that played Sly
and the Beatles were playing us, too.
As I mentioned earlier, we didn't work as hard on the album as we did on the
single, but we had fun trying out all sorts of songs - from "Who's Lovin'
You," the old Miracles' song we were doing in the talent show days, to
We did songs on that album that appealed to a wide audience - kids,
teenagers, and grownups - and we all felt that was a reason for its big
success. We knew that "The Hollywood Palace" had a live audience, a
sophisticated Hollywood crowd, and we were concerned; but we had them from
the first note. There was an orchestra in the pit, so that was the first
time I heard all of "I Want You Back" performed live because I wasn't there
when they recorded the strings for the album. Doing that show made us feel
like kings, the way winning the citywide show in Gary had.
Selecting the right songs for us to do was going to be a real challenge now
that we weren't depending on other people's hits to win crowd. The
Corporation guys and Hal Davis were put to work writing songs especially for
us, as well as producing them. Berry didn't want to have to bail us all out
again. So even after our first singles hit number one on the charts, we were
busy with the follow-ups.
"I Want You Back" could have been sung by a grownup, but "ABC" and "The Love
You Save" were written for our young voices, with parts for Jermaine as well
as me - another bow to the Sly sound, which rotated singers around the
stage. The Corporation had also written those songs with dance routines in
mind: the steps our fans did at parties as well as those we did on stage.
The verses were tongue-twisting, and that's why they were split up between
Jermaine and me.
Neither of those records could have happened without "I Want You Back." We
were adding and subtracting ideas in the arrangements from that one mother
lode of a song, but the public seemed to want everything we were doing. We
later made two more records in the vein, "Mama's Pearl" and "Sugar Daddy,"
which reminded me of my own schoolyard days: "While I'm giving you the
candy, he's getting all your love!" We added one new wrinkle when Jermaine
and I sang harmony together, which always got an enthusiastic response when
we did it from the same mike on stage.
The pros have told us that no group had a better start than we did. Ever.
"I'll Be There" was our real breakthrough song; it was the one that said,
"We're here to stay." It was number one for five weeks, which is very
unusual. That's a long time for a song and the song was one of my favourites
of all the songs we've ever done. How I loved the words: "You and I must
make a pact, we must bring salvation back . . ." Willie Hutch and Berry
Gordy didn't seem like people who'd write like that. They were always
kidding around with us when we weren't in the studio. But that song grabbed
me from the moment I heard the demo. I didn't even know what a harpsichord
was until that record's opening notes were played for us. The song was
produced thanks to the genius of Hal Davis, assisted by Suzy Ikeda, my other
half who stood next to me song after song, making sure I put the right
emotion and feeling and heart into the composition. It was a serious song,
but we threw in a fun part when I sang "Just look over your shoulder,
honey!" Without the honey, that's right out of the Four Tops' great song
"Reach Out, I'll Be There." So we were feeling more and more like a part of
Motown's history as well as its future.
Originally the plan was for me to sing all the bouncy stuff and Jermaine to
do the ballads. But though Jermaine's voice at seventeen was more mature,
ballads were more my love, if not really my style - yet. That was our fourth
straight number one as a group, and a lot of people liked Jermaine's song "I
Found That Girl," the B-side of "The Love You Save," just as much as the
We worked those songs into one big medley, with plenty of room for dancing,
and we went back to that medley when we performed on all kinds of TV shows.
For instance, we played on "The Ed Sullivan Show" three different times.
Motown always told us what to say in interviews back then, but Mr. Sullivan
was one of the people who drew us out and made us feel comfortable. Looking
back, I wouldn't say Motown was putting us in any kind of straitjacket or
turning us into robots, even though I wouldn't have done it that way myself;
and if I had children, I wouldn't tell them what to say. The Motown people
were doing something with us that hadn't been done before, and who was to
say what was the right way to handle that sort of stuff?
Reporters would ask us all kinds of questions, and the Motown people would
be standing by to help us out or monitor the questions if need be. We
wouldn't have dreamed of trying anything that would embarrass them. I guess
they were worried about the possibility of our sounding militant the way
people were often doing in those days. Maybe they were worried after they
gave us those Afros that they had created little Frankensteins. Once a
reporter asked a Black Power question and the Motown person told him we
didn't think about that stuff because we were a "commercial product." It
sounded weird, but we winked and gave the power salute when we left, which
seemed to thrill the guy.
We even had a reunion with don Cornelius on his "Soul Train" show. He had
been a local disc jockey during our Chicago days, so we all knew one another
from that time. We enjoyed watching his show and picked up ideas from those
dancers who were from our part of the country.
The crazy days of the big Jackson 5 tours began right after the successes we
had with our records. It started with a big arena tour in the fall of 1970;
we played huge halls like Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Forum.
When "Never Can Say Goodbye" was a big hit in 1971, we played forty-five
cities that summer, followed by fifty more cities later that year.
I recall most of that time as a period of extreme closeness with my
brothers. We have always been a very loyal and affectionate group. We
clowned around, goofed off a lot together, and played outrageous pranks on
each other and the people who worked with us. We never got too rowdy - no
TV's sailed out of our hotel windows, but a lot of water was spilled on
various heads. We were mostly trying to conquer the boredom we felt from
being so long on the road. When you're bored on tour, you tend to do
anything to cheer yourself up. Here we were, cramped up in these hotel
rooms, unable to go anywhere because of the mobs of screaming girls outside,
and we wanted to have some fun. I wish we could have captured some of the
the stuff we did on film, especially some of the wild pranks. We'd all wait
until our security manager, Bill Bray, was asleep. Then we'd stage insane
fast-walk races in the hallways, pillow fights, tag-team wrestling matches,
shaving cream wars, you name it. We were nuts. We'd drop balloons and paper
bags full of water off hotel balconies and watch them explode. Then we'd die
laughing. We threw stuff at each other and spent hours on the phone making
fake calls and ordering immense room service meals that were delivered to
the rooms of strangers. Anyone who walked into one of our bedrooms had a
ninety percent chance of being drenched by a bucket of water propped over
When we'd arrive in a new city, we'd try to do all the sightseeing we could.
We travelled with a wonderful tutor, Rose Fine, who taught us a great deal
and made sure we did our lessons. It was Rose who instilled in me a love of
books and literature that sustains me today. I read everything I could get
my hands on. New cities meant new places to shop. We loved to shop,
especially in bookstores and department stores, but as our fame spread our
fans transformed casual shopping trips into hand-to-hand combat. Being
mobbed by near hysterical girls was one of the most terrifying experiences
for me in those days. I mean, it was rough . We'd decide to run into some
department store to see what they had, and the fans would find out we were
there and would demolish the place, just tear it up. Counters would get
knocked over, glass would break, the cash registers would be toppled. All we
had wanted to do was look at some clothes! When those mob scenes broke out,
all the craziness and adulation and notoriety became more than we could
handle. If you haven't witnessed a scene like that, you can't imagine what
it's like. Those girls were serious . They still are. They don't realise
they might hurt you because they're acting out of love. They mean well, but
I can testify that it hurts be mobbed. You feel as if you're going to
suffocate or be dismembered. There are a thousand hands grabbing at you. One
girl is twisting your wrist this way while another girl is pulling your
watch off. They grab your hair and pull it hard, and it hurts like fire. You
fall against things and the scrapes are horrible. I still wear the scars,
and I can remember in which city I got each of them. Early on, I learned how
to run through crowds of thrashing girls outside of theatres, hotels, and
airports. It's important to remember to shield your eyes with your hands
because girls can forget they have nails during such emotional
confrontations. I know the fans mean well and I love them for their
enthusiasm and support, but crowd scenes are scary.
The wildest mob scene I ever witnessed happened the first time we went to
England. We were in the air over the Atlantic when the pilot announced that
he had just been told there were ten thousand kids waiting for us at
Heathrow Airport. We couldn't believe it. We were excited, but if we could
have turned around and flown home, we might have. We knew this was going to
be something, but since there wasn't enough fuel to go back, we flew on.
When we landed, we could see that the fans had literally taken over the
whole airport. It was wild to be mobbed like that. My brothers and I felt
fortunate to make it out of the airport alive that day.
I wouldn't trade my memories of those days with my brothers for anything. I
often wish I could relive those days. We were like the seven dwarfs: each of
us was different, each had his own personality. Jackie was the athlete and
the worrier. Tito was the strong, compassionate father figure. He was
totally into cars and loved putting them together and tearing them apart.
Jermaine was the one I was closest to when we were growing up. He was funny
and easygoing, and was constantly fooling around. It was Jermaine who put
all those buckets of cold water on the doors of our hotel rooms. Marlon was
and is one of the most determined people I've ever met. He, too, was a real
joker and prankster. He used to be the one who'd always get in trouble in
the early days because he'd be out of step or miss a note, but that was far
from true later.
The diversity of my brothers' personalities and the closeness we felt were
what kept me going during those gruelling days of constant touring.
Everybody helped everybody. Jackie and Tito would keep us from going too far
with our pranks. They'd seem to have us under control, and then Jermaine and
Marlon would shout, "Let's go crazy!!"
I really miss all that. In the early days we were together all the time.
We'd go to amusement parks or ride horses or watch movies. We did everything
together. As soon as someone said, "I'm going swimming," we'd all yell, "Me
The separation from my brothers started much later, when they began to get
married. An understandable change occurred as each of them became closest to
his wife and they became a family unit unto themselves. A part of me wanted
us to stay as we were - brothers who were also best friends - but change is
inevitable and always good in one sense or another. We still love each
other's company. We still have a great time when we're together. But the
various paths our lives have taken won't allow us the freedom to enjoy one
another's company as much as we did.
In those days, touring with the Jackson 5, I always shared a room with
Jermaine. He and I were close, both onstage and off, and shared a lot of the
same interests. Since Jermaine was also the brother most intrigued by the
girls who wanted to get at him, he and I would get into mischief on the
I think our father decided early on that he had to keep a more watchful eye
on us than on our other brothers. He would usually take the room next to
ours, which meant he could come in to check on us anytime through the
connecting doors. I really despised this arrangement, not only because he
could monitor our misbehaviour, but also because he used to do the meanest
things to us. Jermaine and I would be sleeping, exhausted after a show, and
my father would bring a bunch of girls into the room; we'd wake up and
they'd be standing there, looking at us, giggling.
Because show business and my career were my life, the biggest personal
struggle I had to face during those teenage years did not involve the
recording studios or my stage performance. In those days, the biggest
struggle was right there in my mirror. To a great degree, my identity as a
person was tied to my identity as a person was tied to my identity as a
My appearance began to really change when I was about fourteen. I grew quite
a bit in height. People who didn't know me would come into a room expecting
to be introduced to cute little Michael Jackson and they'd walk right past
me. I would say, "I'm Michael," and they would look doubtful. Michael was a
cute little kid: I was a gangly adolescent heading toward five feet ten
inches. I was not the person they expected or even wanted to see.
Adolescence is hard enough, but imagine having your own natural insecurities
about the changes your body is undergoing heightened by the negative
reactions of others. They seemed so surprised that I could change, that my
body was undergoing the same natural change everyone's does.
It was tough. Everyone had called me cute for a long time, but along with
all the other changes, my skin broke out in a terrible case of acne. I
looked in the mirror one morning and it was like, "OH NO!" I seemed to have
a pimple for every oil gland. And the more I was bothered by it, the worse
it got. I didn't realise it then, but my diet of greasy processed food
didn't help either.
I became subconsciously scarred by this experience with my skin. I got very
shy and became embarrassed to meet people because my complexion was so bad.
It really seemed that the more I looked in the mirror, the worse the pimples
got. My appearance began to depress me. So I know that a case of acne can
have a devastating effect on a person. The effect on me was so bad that it
messed up my whole personality. I couldn't look at people when I talked to
them. I'd look down, or away. I felt I didn't have anything to be proud of
and I didn't even want to go out. I didn't do anything.
My brother Marlon would be covered with pimples and he wouldn't care but I
didn't want to see anybody and I didn't want anyone to see my skin in that
shape. It makes you wonder about what makes us the way we are, that two
brothers could be so different.
I still had our hits records to be proud of, and once I hit the stage, I
didn't think about anything else. All that worry was gone.
But once I came offstage, there was that mirror to face again.
Eventually, things changed. I started feeling differently about my
condition. I've learned to change how I think and learned to feel better
about myself. Most importantly, I changed my diet. That was the key.
In the fall of 1971 I cut my first solo record, "Got to Be There." It was
wonderful working on that record and it became one of my favourites. It was
Berry Gordy's idea that I should do a solo recording, and so I became one of
the first people in a Motown group to really step out. Berry also said he
thought I should record my own album. Years later, when I did, I realised he
There was a small conflict during that era that was typical of the struggles
I went through as a young singer. When you're young and have ideas, people
often think you're just being childish and silly. We were on tour in 1972,
the year "Got To Be There" became a big hit. One night I said to our record
manager, "Before I sing that song, let me go offstage and grab that little
hat I wore for the picture on the album cover. If the audience sees me
wearing that hat, they'll go crazy."
He thought it was the most ridiculous idea he had ever heard. I was not
allowed to do it because I was young, and they all thought it was a dumb
idea. Not long after that incident, Donny Osmond began wearing a very
similar hat all over the country and people loved it. I felt good about my
instincts; I had thought it would work. I had seen Marvin Gaye wear a hat
when he sang "Let's Get It On," and people went bananas. They knew what was
coming when Marvin put that hat on. It added excitement and communicated
something to the audience that allowed them to become more involved with the
I was already a devoted fan of film and animation by the time "The Jackson
Five" Saturday morning cartoon show started appearing over network
television in 1971. Diana Ross had enhanced my appreciation of animation
when she taught me to draw, but being a cartoon character pushed me over the
brink into a full-time love of the movies and the kind of animated motion
pictures pioneered by Walt Disney. I have such admiration for Mr. Disney and
what he accomplished with the help of so many talented artists. When I think
about the joy he and his company have brought to millions of children - and
adults - the world over, I am in awe.
I loved being a cartoon. It was so much fun to get up on Saturday mornings
to watch cartoons and look forward to seeing ourselves on the screen. It was
like a fantasy come true for all of us.
My first real involvement with films came when I sang the title song for the
movie Ben in 1972.
Ben meant a lot to me. Nothing had ever excited me as much as going to the
studio to put my voice on film. I had a great time. Later, when the movie
came out, I'd go to the theatre and wait until the end when the credits
would flash on, and it would say, "'Ben' sung by Michael Jackson." I was
really impressed by that. I loved the song and loved the story. Actually,
the story was a lot like E.T. It was about a boy who befriended a rat.
People didn't understand the boy's love for this little creature. He was
dying of some disease and his only true friend was Ben, the leader of the
rats in the city where they lived. A lot of people thought the movie was a
bit odd, but I was not one of them. The song went to number one and is still
a favourite of mine. I have always loved animals and I enjoy reading about
them and seeing movies in which they're featured.
Chapter Three - Dancing Machine
The media write weird stuff about me all the time. The distortion of the
truth bothers me. I usually don't read a lot of what is printed, although I
often hear about it.
I don't understand why they feel the need to make up things about me. I
suppose if there's nothing scandalous to report, it's necessary to make
things interesting. I take some small pride in thinking that I've come out
pretty well, all things considered. A lot of children in the entertainment
business ended up doing drugs and destroying themselves: Frankie Lymon,
Bobbie Driscoll, any of a number of child stars. And I can understand their
turning to drugs, considering the enormous stresses put upon them at a young
age. It's a difficult life. Very few manage to maintain any semblance of a
I myself have never tried drugs - no marijuana, no cocaine, nothing. I mean,
I haven't even tried these things.
This isn't to say we were never tempted. We were musicians doing business
during an era when drug use was common. I don't mean to be judgmental - it's
not even a moral issue for me - but I've seen drugs destroy too many lives
to think they're anything to fool with. I'm certainly no angel, and I may
have my own bad habits, but drugs aren't among them.
By the time Ben came out, we knew that we were going to go around the world.
American soul music had become as popular in other countries as blue jeans
and hamburgers. We were invited to become part of that big world, and in
1972 we began our first overseas tour with a visit to England. Though we'd
never been there before or appeared on British television, people knew all
the words to our songs. They even had wide scarves with our pictures on them
and "Jackson 5" written in big broad letters. The theatres were smaller than
the ones we were used to playing in the United States, but the enthusiasm
from the crowds was very gratifying as we'd finish each song. They didn't
scream during the songs the way crowds did back home, so people over there
could actually tell how good Tito was getting on the guitar, because they
could hear him.
We took Randy along because we wanted to give him the experience and allow
him to see what was going on. He wasn't officially part of our act, but
stayed in the background with bongos. He had his own Jackson 5 outfit, so
when we introduced him, people cheered. The next time we came back, Randy
would be a part of the group. I had been the bongo player before Randy, and
Marlon had played them before me, so it had become almost a tradition to
break the new guy in on those crazy little drums.
We had three years of hits behind us when we toured Europe that first time,
so there was enough to please both the kids who followed our music and the
Queen of England, whom we met at a Royal Command Performance. That was very
exciting for us. I had seen photographs of other groups, like the Beatles,
meeting the Queen after command performances, but I never dreamed we'd get
the chance to play for her.
England was our jumping-off point, and it was different from any place we'd
been before, but the farther we travelled, the more exotic the world looked.
We saw the great museums of Paris and the beautiful mountains of
Switzerland. Europe was an education in the roots of Western culture and, in
a way, a preparation for visiting Eastern countries that were more
spiritual. I was very impressed that the people there didn't value material
things as much as they did animals and nature. For instance, China and Japan
were places that helped me grow because these countries made me understand
there was more to life than the things you could hold in your hand or see
with you eyes. And in all of these countries, the people had heard of us and
liked our music.
Australia and New Zealand, our next stops, were English-speaking, but we met
people who were still living in tribes in the outback. They greeted us as
brothers even though they didn't speak our language. If I'd ever needed
proof that all men could be brothers, I certainly had it during that tour.
And then there was Africa. We had read up on Africa because our tutor, Miss
Fine, had prepared special lessons on the customs and history of each
country we visited. We didn't get to see the prettier parts of Africa, but
the ocean and the shore and the people were unbelievably beautiful near the
coast where we were. We went to a game reserve one day and observed animals
roaming wild. The music was eye-opening too. The rhythms were phenomenal.
When we first came off the plane, it was dawn and there was a long line of
Africans dancing in their native costumes, with drums and shakers. They were
dancing all around, welcoming us. They were really into it. Boy, it was
something. What a perfect way to welcome us to Africa. I'll never forget
And the craftspeople in the marketplace were incredible. People were making
things as we watched and selling other things. I remember one man who made
beautiful wood carvings. He'd ask you what you wanted and you'd say, "A
man's face," and he'd take a piece from a tree trunk, slice it, and create
this remarkable face. You could watch him do it right before your eyes. I'd
just sit there and watch people step up to ask him to make something for
them and he'd do this whole thing over and over.
It was a visit to Senegal that made us realise how fortunate we were and how
our African heritage had helped to make us what we were. We visited an old,
abandoned slave camp at Gore Island and we were so moved. The African people
had given us gifts of courage and endurance that we couldn't hope to repay.
I guess if Motown could have had us age the way they wanted us to, they
would have wanted Jackie to stay the age he was when we became a headline
act and have each of us catch up with him - although I think they'd have
wanted to keep me a year or so younger, so I could still be a child star.
That may sound nonsensical, but it really wasn't much more farfetched than
the way they were continuing to mold us, keeping is from being a real group
with its own internal direction and ideas. We were growing up and we were
expanding creatively. We had so many ideas we wanted to try out, but they
were convinced that we shouldn't fool with a successful formula. At least
they didn't drop us as soon as my voice changed, as some said they might.
It got to the point that it seemed there were more guys in the booth than
there were on the studio floor at any given time. They all seemed to be
bumping into one another, giving advice and monitoring our music.
Our loyal fans stuck with us on records like "I Am Love" and "Skywriter."
These songs were musically ambitious pop recordings, with sophisticated
string arrangements, but they weren't right for us. Sure, we couldn't do
"ABC" all our lives - that was the last thing we wanted - but even the older
fans thought "ABC" had more going for it, and that was hard for us to live
with. During the mid-seventies we were in danger of becoming an oldies act,
and I wasn't even eighteen yet.
When Jermaine married Hazel Gordy, our boss's daughter, people were winking
at us, saying that we'd always be looked after. Indeed, when "Get It
Together" came out in 1973, it got the same treatment from Berry that "I
Want You Back" had gotten. It was our biggest hit in two years, though you
could have said it was more like a bone transplant than the spanking little
baby that our first hit was. Nevertheless, "Get It Together" had good, tough
low harmony, a sharper wah-wah guitar, and strings that buzzed like
fireflies. Radio stations liked it, but not as much as the new dance clubs
called discos did. Motown picked up on this and brought back Hal Davis from
The Corporation days to really put the juice into "Dancing Machine." The
Jackson 5 were no longer just the backup group for the 101 Strings or
Motown had come a long way from the early days when you could find good
studio musicians supplementing their session pay with bowling alley gigs. A
new sophistication turned up in the music on "Dancing Machine." That song
had the best horn part we'd worked with yet and a "bubble machine" in the
break, made out of synthesizer noise, that kept the song from going
completely out of style. Disco music had its detractors, but to us it seemed
our rite of passage into the adult world.
I loved "Dancing Machine," loved the groove and the feel of that song. When
it came out in 1974, I was determined to find a dance move that would
enhance the song and make it more exciting to perform - and, I hoped, more
exciting to watch.
So when we sang "Dancing Machine" on "Soul Train," I did a street-style
dance move called the Robot. That performance was a lesson to me in the
power of television. Overnight, "Dancing Machine" rose to the top of the
charts, and within a few days it seemed that every kid in the United States
was doing the Robot. I had never seen anything like it.
Motown and the Jackson 5 could agree on one thing: As our act grew, our
audience should too. We had two recruits coming up: Randy had already toured
with us, and Janet was showing talent with her singing and dancing lessons.
We couldn't put Randy and Janet into our old lineup any more than we could
put square pegs into round holes. I wouldn't insult their considerable
talent by saying that show business was so in their blood that they just
took their places automatically, as if we'd reserved a spot for them. They
worked hard and earned their places in the group. They didn't join us
because they ate meals with us and shared our old toys.
If you just went by blood, I'd have as much crane operator in me as singer.
You can't measure these things. Dad worked us hard and kept certain goals in
sight while spinning dreams at night.
Just as disco might have seemed like a very unlikely place for a kids' group
to become a grown-up act, Las Vegas, with its showcase theatres, wasn't
exactly the family atmosphere that Motown had originally groomed us for, but
we decided to play there just the same. There wasn't much to do in Las Vegas
if you didn't gamble, but we thought of the theatres in the city as just big
clubs with the club hours and clientele of our Gary and South Side Chicago
days - except for the tourists. Tourist crowds were a good thing for us,
since they knew our old hits and would watch our skits and listen to new
songs without getting restless. It was great to see the delight on their
faces when little Janet came out in her Mae West costume for a number or
We had performed skits before, in a 1971 TV special called Goin' Back To
Indiana , which celebrated our Gary homecoming the first time we all decided
to return. Our records had become hits all over the world since we'd seen
our hometown last.
It was even more fun to do skits with nine of us, instead of just five, plus
whatever guests happened to appear with us. Our expanded lineup was a dream
come true for Dad. Looking back, I know the Las Vegas shows were an
experience I'll never recapture. We didn't have the high-pressure concert
crowd wanting all our hit songs and nothing more. We were temporarily freed
from the pressures of having to keep up with what everyone else was doing.
We had a ballad or two in every show to break in my "new voice." At fifteen,
I was having to think about things like that.
There were people from CBS Television at our Las Vegas shows and they
approached us about doing a variety show for the upcoming summer. We were
very interested and pleased that we were being recognised as more than just
a "Motown group." Over time, this distinction would not be lost on us.
Because we had creative control over our Las Vegas revue, it was harder for
us to return to our lack of freedom in recording and writing music once we
got back to Los Angeles. We'd always intended to grow and develop in the
musical field. That was our bread and butter, and we felt we were being held
back. Sometimes I felt we were being treated as if we still lived in Berry
Gordy's house - and with Jermaine now a son-in-law, our frustration was only
By the time we began putting our own act together, there were signs that
other Motown institutions were changing. Marvin Gaye took charge of his own
music and produced his masterpiece album, What's Goin' On . Stevie Wonder
was learning more about electronic keyboards than the experienced studio
hired guns - they were coming to him for advice. One of our last great
memories from our Motown days is of Stevie leading us in chanting to back up
his tough, controversial song "You Haven't Done Nothin'." Though Stevie and
Marvin were still in the Motown camp, they had fought for - and won - the
right to make their own records, and even to publish their own songs. Motown
hadn't even budged with us. To them we were still kids, even if they weren't
dressing us and "protecting" us any longer.
Our problems with Motown began around 1974, when we told them in no
uncertain terms that we wanted to write and produce our own songs.
Basically, we didn't like the way our music sounded at the time. We had a
strong competitive urge and we felt we were in danger of being eclipsed by
other groups who were creating a more contemporary sound.
Motown said, "No, you can't write your own songs; you've got to have
songwriters and producers." They not only refused to grant our requests,
they told us it was taboo to even mention that we wanted to do our own
music. I really got discouraged and began to seriously dislike all the
material Motown was feeding us. Eventually I became so disappointed and
upset that I wanted to leave Motown behind.
When I feel that something is not right, I have to speak up. I know most
people don't think of me as tough or strong-willed, but that's just because
they don't know me. Eventually my brothers and I reached a point with Motown
where we were miserable but no one was saying anything. My brothers didn't
say anything. My father didn't say anything. So it was up to me to arrange a
meeting with Berry Gordy and talk to him. I was the one who had to say that
we - the Jackson 5 - were going to leave Motown. I went over to see him,
face to face, and it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. If
I had been the only one of us who was unhappy, I might have kept my mouth
shut, but there had been so much talk at home about how unhappy we all were
that I went in and talked to him and told him how we felt. I told him I was
Remember, I love Berry Gordy. I think he's a genius, a brilliant man who's
one of the giants of the music business. I have nothing but respect for him,
but that day I was a lion. I complained that we weren't allowed any freedom
to write songs and produce. He told me that he still thought we needed
producers to make hit records.
But I knew better, Berry was talking out of anger. That was a difficult
meeting, but we're friends again, and he's still like a father to me - very
proud of me and happy about my success. No matter what, I will always love
Berry because he taught me some of the most valuable things I've learned in
my life. He's the man who told the Jackson 5 they would become a part of
history, and that is exactly what happened. Motown has done so much for so
many people over the years. I feel we're fortunate to have been one of the
groups Berry personally introduced to the public and I owe enormous thanks
to this man. My life would have been very different without him. We all felt
that Motown started us, supporting our professional careers. We all felt our
roots were there, and we all wished we could stay. We were grateful for
everything they had done for us, but change is inevitable. I'm a person of
the present, and I have to ask, How are things going now? What's happening
now? What's going to happen in the future that could affect what has
happened in the past?
It's important for artists always to maintain control of their lives and
work. There's been a big problem in the past with artists being taken
advantage of. I've learned that a person can prevent that from happening by
standing up for what he or she believes is right, without concern for the
consequences. We could have stayed with Motown; but if we had, we'd probably
be an oldies act.
I knew it was time for change, so we followed our instincts, and we won when
we decided to try for a fresh start with another label. Epic
We were relieved that we had finally made our feelings clear and cut the
ties that were binding us, but we were also really devastated when Jermaine
decided to stay with Motown. He was Berry's son-in-law and his situation was
more complicated than ours. He thought it was more important for him to stay
than to leave, and Jermaine always did as his conscience told him, so he
left the group.
I clearly remember the first show we did without him, because it was so
painful for me. Since my earliest days on the stage - and even in our
rehearsals in our Gary living room - Jermaine stood at my left with his
bass. I depended on being next to Jermaine. And when I did that first show
without him there, with no one next to me, I felt totally naked onstage for
the first time in my life. So we worked harder to compensate for the loss of
one of our shining stars, Jermaine. I remember that show well because we got
three standing ovations. We worked hard .
When Jermaine left the group, Marlon had a chance to take his place and he
really shone onstage. My brother Randy officially took my place as bongo
player and the baby of the band.
Around the time that Jermaine left, things were further complicated for us
because of the fact that we were doing a stupid summer replacement TV
series. It was a dumb move to agree to do that show and I hated every minute
I had loved the old "Jackson Five" cartoon show. I used to wake up early on
Saturday mornings and say, "I'm a cartoon!" But I hated doing this
television show because I felt it would hurt our recording career rather
than help it. I think a TV series is the worst thing an artist who has a
recording career can do. I kept saying, "But this is gonna hurt our record
sales." And others said, "No, it's gonna help them."
They were totally wrong. We had to dress in ridiculous outfits and perform
stupid comedy routines to canned laughter. It was all so fake. We didn't
have time to learn or master anything about television. We had to create
three dance numbers a day, trying to meet a deadline. The Nielsen ratings
controlled our lives from week to week. I'd never do it again. It's a
dead-end road. What happens is partly psychological. You are in people's
homes every week and they begin to feel they know you too well. You're doing
all this silly comedy to canned laughter and your music begins to recede
into the background. When you try to get serious again and pick up your
career where you left off, you can't because you're overexposed. People are
thinking of you as the guys who do the silly, crazy routines. One week
you're Santa Claus, the next week you're Prince Charming, another week
you're a rabbit. It's crazy, because you lose your identity in the business;
the rocker image you had is gone. I'm not a comedian. I'm not a show host.
I'm a musician. That's why I've turned down offers to host the Grammy Awards
and the American Music Awards. Is it really entertaining for me to get up
there and crack a few weak jokes and force people to laugh because I'm
Michael Jackson, when I know in my heart that I'm not funny?
After our TV show I can remember doing theatres-in-the-round where the stage
didn't revolve because if they had turned it, we would have been singing to
some empty seats. I learned something from that experience and I was the one
who refused to renew our contract with the network for another season. I
just told my father and brothers that I thought it was a big mistake, and
they understood my point of view. I had actually had a lot of misgivings
about the show before we started taping it, but I ended up agreeing to give
it a try because everyone thought it would be a great experience and very
good for us.
The problem with TV is that everything must be crammed into a little space
of time. You don't have time to perfect anything. Schedules - tight
schedules - rule your life. If you're not happy with something, you just
forget it and move on to the next routine. I'm a perfectionist by nature. I
like things to be the best they can be. I want people to hear or watch
something I've done and feel that I've given it everything I've got. I feel
I owe an audience that courtesy. On the show our sets were sloppy, the
lighting was poor, and our choreography was rushed . Somehow, the show was a
big hit. There was a popular show on opposite us and we beat them out in the
Nielsens. CBS really wanted to keep us, but I knew that show was a mistake.
As it turned out, it did hurt our record sales and it took us a while to
recover from the damage. When you know something's wrong for you, you have
to make difficult decisions and trust your instincts.
I rarely did TV after that; the Motown 25 special is the only show that
comes to mind. Berry asked me to be on that show and I kept trying to say
no, but he finally talked me into it. I told him I wanted to do "Billie
Jean" even though it would be the only non-Motown song on the show, and he
readily agreed. "Billie Jean" was number one at the time. I choreographed
our routines, so I was pretty wrapped up in those numbers, but I had a good
notion of what I wanted to do with "Billie Jean." I had a sense that the
routine had worked itself out in my mind while I was busy with other things.
I asked someone to rent or buy me a black fedora - a spy hat - and the day
of the show I began putting the routine together. I'll never forget that
night, because when I opened my eyes at the end, people were on their feet
applauding. I was overwhelmed by the reaction. It felt so good.
Our only "break" during the Motown-to-Epic switch was the TV show. While
that was all going on, we heard that Epic had Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff
working on demos for us. We were told we'd be recording in Philadelphia
after our shows were all done.
If there was anyone who stood to gain the most from switching labels, it was
Randy, who was now part of the Five. But now that he finally was one of us,
we were no longer known as the Jackson 5. Motown said that the group's name
was the company's registered trademark, and that we couldn't use it when we
left. That was hardball, of course, so we called ourselves the Jacksons from
that time on.
Dad had met with the Philly guys while negotiations were going on with Epic.
We'd always had great respect for the records that Gamble and Huff had
overseen, records like "Backstabbers" by the O'Jays, "If You Don't Know Me
By Now," by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes(featuring Teddy Pendergrass),
and "When Will I See You Again," by the Three Degrees, along with many other
hits. They told Dad they'd been watching us, and they said they wouldn't
mess with our singing. Dad mentioned that we were hoping to have a song or
two of our own included in the new album, and they promised to give them a
We'd gotten to talk with Kenny and Leon and their team of people, which
included Leon McFadden and John Whitehead. They showed what they could do
for themselves when they made "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" in 1979. Dexter
Wanzel was also a part of this team. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are such
pros. I actually got a chance to watch them create as they presented songs
to us and that helped my songwriting a lot. Just watching Huff play the
piano while Gamble sang taught me more about the anatomy of a song than
anything else. Kenny Gamble is a master melody man. He made me pay closer
attention to the melody because of watching him create. And I would watch,
too. I'd sit there like a hawk, observing every decision, listening to every
note. They'd come to us in our hotel and play a whole album's worth of music
for us. That's the way we'd be introduced to the songs they had chosen for
our album - aside from the two songs we were writing ourselves. It was an
amazing thing to be present for.
We had cut some demos of our songs at home during our breaks from shooting,
but we decided to wait on those - we felt there was no sense putting a gun
to anyone's head. We knew that Philly had a lot to offer us, so we'd save
our surprise for them later.
Our two songs, "Blues Away" and "Style of Life," were two hard secrets to
keep at the time because we were so proud of them. "Style of Life" was a jam
that Tito directed, and it was in keeping with the nightclub groove that
"Dancing Machine" got us into, but we kept it a little leaner and meaner
than Motown would have cut it.
"Blues Away" was one of my first songs, and though I don't sing it any more,
I'm not embarrassed to hear it. I couldn't have gone on in this business if
I had ended up hating my own records after all that work. It's a light song
about overcoming a deep depression - I was going for the Jackie Wilson
"Lonely Teardrops" way of laughing on the outside to stop the churning
When we saw the cover art for The Jacksons album, the first we cut for Epic,
we were surprised to see that we all looked alike. Even Tito looked skinny!
I had my "crown" Afro then, so I didn't stick out so much, I guess. Still,
once we performed our new songs like "Enjoy Yourself" and "Show You the Way
to Go," people knew I was still second from the left, right out front. Randy
took Tito's old spot on my far right, and Tito moved into the old place
Jermaine had. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable with that, as
I've mentioned, though it was through no fault of Tito's.
Those two singles were fun records - "Enjoy Yourself" was great for dancing.
It had rhythm guitar and horns that I really liked. It was also a number one
record. For my taste, I leaned a little more toward "Show You the Way to Go"
because it showed what good regard the Epic people had for our singing. We
were all over that record and it was the best one we did. I loved the high
hat and strings fluttering alongside us like birds' wings. I'm surprised
that song in particular wasn't a bigger hit.
Though we couldn't spell it out, we kind of hinted about our situation in a
song called "Living Together," which Kenny and Leon chose with us in mind.
"If we're going to stick together, we've got to be a family. Have yourself a
real good time, but don't you know it's getting late." The strings pointed
and thrust like they did in "Backstabbers," but that was a Jacksons'
message, even if it wasn't in the Jacksons' style - yet.
Gamble and Huff had written enough songs for another album, but we knew from
experience that while they were doing what they did best, we were losing
some of our identity. We were honoured to be a part of the Philly family,
but that wasn't enough for us. We were determined to do all of the things we
had wanted to do for so many years. That's why we had to go back into our
Encino studio and work together again as a family.
Going Places , our second album for Epic, was different from our first.
There were more songs with messages and not as many dance songs. We knew
that the message to promote peace and let music take over was a good one,
but again it was more like the old O'Jays' "Love Train" and not really our
Still, maybe it wasn't a bad thing that there was no big pop hit on Going
Places because it made "Different Kind of Lady" an obvious choice for club
play. It was positioned in the middle of side one, so there were two Gamble
and Huff songs sandwiching it, and our song stood out like a ball of fire.
That was a real band cooking, with the Philly horns giving it one
exclamation point after another, just as we'd hoped. That's the feel we were
trying for when we were making demos with our old friend Bobby Taylor before
going to Epic. Kenny and Leon put the finishing touches on it, the icing,
but on this one we'd baked the cake ourselves.
After Going Places was in the stores, Dad asked me to accompany him to a
meeting with Ron Alexenburg. Ron signed us for CBS, and he really believed
in us. We wanted to convince him that we were ready now to take charge of
our own music. We felt that CBS had evidence of what we could do on our own,
so we stated our case, explaining that we'd originally wanted Bobby Taylor
to work with us. Bobby had stuck with us through all those years, and we had
thought he'd be a fine producer for us. Epic wanted Gamble and Huff because
they had the track record, but maybe they were the wrong jockeys or we were
the wrong horses for them, because we were letting them down in the sales
department through no fault of our own. We had a strong work ethic that
backed up everything we did.
Mr. Alexenburg was certainly used to dealing with performers, although I'm
sure that among his business friends he could be just as cutting about
musicians as we musicians could be when we were swapping our own stories
among ourselves. But Dad and I were on the same wavelength when it came to
the business side of music. People who make music and people who sell
records are not natural enemies. I care as much about what I do as a
classical musician, and I want what I do to reach the widest possible
audience. The record people care about their artists, and they want to reach
the widest market. As we sat in the CBS boardroom eating a nicely catered
lunch, we told Mr. Alexenburg that Epic had done its best, and it wasn't
good enough. We felt we could do better, that our reputation was worth
putting on the line.
When we left that skyscraper known as Black Rock, Dad and I didn't say much
to each other. The ride back to the hotel was a silent one, with each of us
thinking our own thoughts. There wasn't much to add to what we had already
said. Our whole lives had been leading to that single, important
confrontation, however civilised and aboveboard it was. Maybe Ron Alexenburg
has had reason to smile over the years when he remembers that day.
When that meeting took place at CBS headquarters in New York, I was only
nineteen years old. I was carrying a heavy burden for nineteen. My family
was relying on me more and more as far as business and creative decisions
were concerned, and I was so worried about trying to do the right thing for
them; but I also had an opportunity to do something I'd wanted to do all my
life - act in a film. Ironically the old Motown connection was paying a late
Motown had bought the rights to film the Broadway show known as The Wiz even
as we were leaving the company. The Wiz was an updated, black-orientated
version of the great movie The Wizard of Oz , which I had always loved. I
remember that when I was a kid The Wizard of Oz was shown on television once
a year and always on a Sunday night. Kids today can't imagine what a big
event that was for all of us because they've grown up with videocassettes
and the expanded viewing that cable provides.
I had seen the Broadway show too, which was certainly no letdown. I swear I
saw it six or seven times. I later became very friendly with the star of the
show, Stephanie Mills, the Broadway Dorothy. I told her then, and I've
always believed since, that it was a tragedy that her performance in the
play could not have been preserved on film. I cried time after time. As much
as I like the Broadway stage, I don't think I'd want to play on it myself.
When you give a performance, whether on record or on film, you want to be
able to judge what you've done, to measure yourself and try to improve. You
can't do that in an untaped or unrecorded performance. It makes me sad to
think of all the great actors who have played roles we would give anything
to see, but they're lost to us because they couldn't be, or simply weren't,
If I had been tempted to go onstage, it would probably have been to work
with Stephanie, although her performances were so moving that I might have
cried right there in front of the audience. Motown bought The Wiz for one
reason, and as far as I was concerned, it was the best reason possible:
Diana was close to Berry Gordy and had her loyalties to him and to Motown,
but she did not forget us just because our records now had a different label
on them. We had been in touch throughout the changes, and she had even met
up with us in Las Vegas, where she gave us tips during our run there. Diana
was going to play Dorothy, and since it was the only part that was
definitely cast, she encouraged me to audition. She also assured me that
Motown would not keep me from getting a part just to spite me or my family.
She would make sure of that if she had to, but she didn't think she'd have
She didn't. It was Berry Gordy who said he hoped I'd audition for The Wiz .
I was very fortunate he felt that way, because I was bitten by the acting
bug during that experience. I said to myself, this is what I'm interested in
doing when I have a chance - this is it. When you make a film, you're
capturing something elusive and you're stopping time. The people, their
performances, the story become a thing that can be shared by people all over
the world for generations and generations. Imagine never having seen
Captains Courageous or To Kill a Mockingbird ! Making movies is exciting
work. It's such a team effort and it's also a lot of fun. Someday soon I
plan to devote a lot of my time to making films.
I auditioned for the part of the Scarecrow because I thought his character
best fit my style. I was too bouncy for the Tin Man and too light for the
Lion, so I had a definite goal, and I tried to put a lot of thought into my
reading and dancing for the part. When I got the call back from the
director, Sidney Lumet, I felt so proud but also a little scared. The
process of making a film was new to me, and I was going to have to let go of
my responsibilities to my family and my music for months. I had visited New
York, where we were shooting, to get the feel for Harlem that The Wiz ¦s
story called for, but I had never lived there. I was surprised by how
quickly I got used to the lifestyle. I enjoyed meeting a whole group of
people I'd always heard about on the other coast but had never laid eyes on.
Making The Wiz was an education for me on so many levels. As a recording
artist I already felt like an old pro, but the film world was completely new
to me. I watched as closely as I could and learned a lot.
During this period in my life, I was searching, both consciously and
unconsciously. I was feeling some stress and anxiety about what I wanted to
do with my life now that I was an adult. I was analysing my options and
preparing to make decisions that could have a lot of repercussions. Being on
the set of The Wiz was like being in a big school. My complexion was still a
mess during the filming of the movie, so I found myself really enjoying the
makeup. It was an amazing makeup job. Mine took five hours to do, six days a
week; we didn't shoot on Sundays. We finally got it down to four hours flat
after doing it long enough. The other people who were being made up were
amazed that I didn't mind sitting there having this done for such long
periods of time. They hated it, but I enjoyed having the stuff put on my
face. When I was transformed into the Scarecrow, it was the most wonderful
thing in the world. I got to be somebody else and escape through my
character. Kids would come visit the set, and I'd have such fun playing with
them and responding to them as the Scarecrow.
I'd always pictured myself doing something very elegant in the movies, but
it was my experience with the makeup and costume and prop people in New York
that made me realise another aspect of how wonderful film-making could be. I
had always loved the Charlie Chaplin movies, and no one ever saw him doing
anything overtly elegant in the silent movie days. I wanted something of the
quality of his characters in my Scarecrow. I loved everything about the
costume, from the coil legs to the tomato nose to the fright wig. I even
kept the orange and white sweater that came with it and used it in a picture
session years later.
The film had marvellous, very complicated dance numbers, and learning them
was no problem. But that in itself became an unexpected problem with my
Ever since I was a very little boy, I've been able to watch somebody do a
dance step and then immediately know how to do it. Another person might have
to be taken through the movement step by step and told to count and put this
leg here and the hip to the right. When your hip goes to the left, put your
neck over there . . . that sort of thing. But if I see it, I can do it.
When we were doing The Wiz , I was being instructed in the choreography
along with my characters - the Tin Man, the Lion, and Diana Ross - and they
were getting mad at me. I couldn't figure out what was wrong until Diana
took me aside and told me that I was embarrassing her. I just stared at her.
Embarrassing Diana Ross? Me? She said she knew I wasn't aware of it, but I
was learning the dances much too quickly. It was embarrassing for her and
the others, who just couldn't learn steps as soon as they saw the
choreographer do them. She said he'd show us something and I'd just go out
there and do it. When he asked the others to do it, it took them longer to
learn. We laughed about it, but I tried to make the ease with which I
learned my steps less obvious.
I also learned that there could be a slightly vicious side to the business
of making a movie. Often when I was in front of the camera, trying to do a
serious scene, one of the other characters would start making faces at me,
trying to crack me up. I had always been drilled in serious professionalism
and preparedness and therefore I thought it was a pretty mean thing to do.
This actor would know that I had important lines to say that day, yet he
would make these really crazy faces to distract me. I felt it was more than
inconsiderate and unfair.
Much later Marlon Brando would tell me that people used to do that to him
all the time.
The problems on the set were really few and far between and it was great
working with Diana so closely. She's such a beautiful, talented woman. Doing
this movie together was very special for me. I love her very much. I have
always loved her very much.
The whole Wiz period was a time of stress and anxiety, even though I was
enjoying myself. I remember July 4 of that year very well, because I was on
the beach at my brother Jermaine's house, about half a block away along the
waterfront. I was messing around in the surf, and all of a sudden I couldn't
breathe. No air. Nothing. I asked myself what's wrong? I tried not to panic,
but I ran back to the house to find Jermaine, who took me to the hospital.
It was wild. A blood vessel had burst in my lung. It has never reoccurred,
although I used to feel little pinches and jerks in there that were probably
my imagination. I later learned that this condition was related to pleurisy.
It was suggested by my doctor that I try to take things a little slower, but
my schedule would not permit it. Hard work continued to be the name of the
As much as I liked the old Wizard of Oz , this new script, which differed
from the Broadway production in scope rather than spirit, asked more
questions than the original movie and answered them too. The atmosphere of
the old movie was that of a magic kingdom sort of fairy tale. Our movie, on
the other hand, had sets based on realities that kids could identify with,
like schoolyards, subway stations, and the real neighbourhood that our
Dorothy came from. I still enjoy seeing The Wiz and reliving the experience.
I am especially fond of the scene where Diana asks, "What am I afraid of?
Don't know what I'm made of . . ." because I've felt that way many times,
even during the good moments of my life. She sings about overcoming fear and
walking straight and tall. She knows and the audience knows that no threat
of danger can hold her back.
My character had plenty to say and to learn. I was propped up on my pole
with a bunch of crows laughing at me, while I sang "You Can't Win." The song
was about humiliation and helplessness - something that so many people have
felt at one time or another - and the feeling that there are people out
there who don't actively hold you back as much as they work quietly on your
insecurities so that you hold yourself back. The script was clever and
showed me pulling bits of information and quotations out of my straw while
not really knowing how to use them. My straw contained all the answers, but
I didn't know the questions.
The great difference between the two Wizard movies was that all the answers
are given to Dorothy by the Good Witch and by her friends in Oz in the
original, while in our version Dorothy comes to her own conclusions. Her
loyalty to her three friends and her courage in fighting Elvina in that
amazing sweatshop scene make Dorothy a memorable character. Diana's singing
and dancing and acting have stayed with me ever since. She was a perfect
Dorothy. After the evil witch had been defeated, the sheer joy of our
dancing took over. To dance with Diana in that movie was like an abridged
version of my own story - my knock-kneed walk and "bigfoot" spin were me in
my early days; our tabletop dance in the sweatshop scene was where we were
right then. Everything was onward and upward. When I told my brothers and
father I had gotten this part, they thought it might be too much for me, but
the opposite was true. The Wiz gave me new inspiration and strength. The
question became what to do with those things. How could I best harness them?
As I was asking myself what I wanted to do next, another man and I were
travelling parallel paths that would converge on the set of The Wiz . We
were in Brooklyn rehearsing one day, and we were reading our parts out loud
to one another. I had thought that learning lines would be the most
difficult thing I'd ever do, but I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone had
been kind, assuring me that it was easier that I thought. And it was.
We were doing the crows' scene that day. The other guys wouldn't even have
their heads visible in this scene because they'd be in crow costumes. They
seemed to know their parts backward and forward. I'd studied mine too, but I
hadn't said them aloud more than once or twice.
The directions called for me to pull a piece of paper from my straw and read
it. It was a quote. The author's name, Socrates, was printed at the end. I
had read Socrates, but I had never pronounced his name, so I said,
"Soh-crates," because that's the way I had always assumed it was pronounced.
There was a moment's silence before I heard someone whisper,
"Soh-ruh-teeze." I looked over at this man I vaguely recognised. He was not
one of the actors, but he seemed to belong there. I remember thinking he
looked very self-confident and had a friendly face.
I smiled, a little embarrassed at having mispronounced the name, and thanked
him for his help. His face was naggingly familiar, and I was suddenly sure
that I had met him before. He confirmed my suspicions by extending his hand.
"Quincy Jones. I'm doing the score."
Chapter Four - Me And Q
I had actually first met Quincy Jones in Los Angeles when I was about twelve
years old. Quincy later told me that at the time Sammy Davis, Jr., had said
to him, "This kid is gonna be the next biggest thing since sliced bread."
Something like that, anyway, and Quincy said, "Oh yeah?" I was little at the
time, but I vaguely remembered Sammy Davis introducing me to Q.
Our friendship really began to blossom on the set of The Wiz , and it
developed into a father-and-son relationship. After The Wiz I called him and
said, "Look, I'm going to do an album - do you think you could recommend
I wasn't hinting. My question was a naive but honest one. We talked about
music for a while, and, after coming up with some names and some
half-hearted hemming and hawing, he said, "Why don't you let me do it?"
I really hadn't thought of it. It sounded to him as if I was hinting, but I
wasn't. I just didn't think he would be that interested in my music. So I
stammered something like, "Oh sure, great idea. I never thought about that."
Quincy still kids me about it.
Anyway, we immediately began to plan the album that became Off the Wall .
My brothers and I decided to form our own production company, and we began
thinking about names to call it.
You don't find many articles about peacocks in the newspaper, but around
this time I found the only one that mattered. I had always thought peacocks
were beautiful and had admired one that Berry Gordy had at one of his homes.
So when I read the article, which had an accompanying picture of a peacock,
and revealed a great deal about the bird's characteristics, I was excited. I
thought I might have found the image we were looking for. It was an in-depth
piece, a little dry in places, but interesting. The writer said that the
peacock's full plumage would explode only when it was in love, and then all
the colours would shine - all the colours of the rainbow on one body.
I was immediately taken with that beautiful image and the meaning behind it.
That bird's plumage conveyed the message I was looking for to explain the
Jacksons and our intense devotion to one another, as well as our
multifaceted interests. My brothers liked the idea, so we called our new
company Peacock Productions, to sidestep the trap of relying too heavily on
the Jackson name. Our first world tour had focused our interest in uniting
people of all races through music. Some people we knew wondered what we
meant when we talked about uniting all the races through music -after all,
we were black musicians. Our answer was "music is colour-blind." We saw that
every night, especially in Europe and the other parts of the world we had
visited. The people we met there loved our music. It didn't matter to them
what colour our skin was or which country we called home.
We wanted to form our own production company because we wanted to grow and
establish ourselves as a new presence in the music world, not just as
singers and dancers, but as writers, composers, arrangers, producers, and
even publishers. We were interested in so many things, and we needed an
umbrella company to keep track of our projects. CBS had agreed to let us
produce our own album - the last two albums had sold well, but "Different
Kind of Lady" showed a potential that they agreed was worth letting us
develop. They did have one condition for us: they assigned an A&R man, Bobby
Colomby, who used to be with Blood, Sweat, and Tears, to check in with us
from time to time to see how we were doing and to see if we needed any help.
We knew that the five of us needed some outside musicians to get the best
possible sound, and we were weak in two areas: the keyboard and arranging
sides of things. We had been faithfully adding all the new technology to our
Encino studio without really having a mastery of it. Greg Phillinganes was
young for a studio pro, but that was a plus as far as we were concerned
because we wanted someone who would be more open to newer ways of doing
things than the seasoned veterans we had encountered over the years.
He came to Encino to do preproduction work, and we all took turns surprising
each other. Our mutual preconceptions just dissolved. It was a great thing
to watch. As we sketched out our new songs for him, we told him that we
liked the vocal tracks that Philly International always put a premium on,
but when the mix came out, we always seemed to be fighting someone else's
wall of sound, all those strings and cymbals. We wanted to sound cleaner and
more funky, with a flintier bass and sharper horn parts. With his beautiful
rhythm arrangements, Greg put into musical form what we were sketching for
him and then some. We felt he was reading our minds.
A Bobby Colomby recruit who came to work with us then was Paulinho de Costa,
whom we worried about because it seemed to us that Randy was being told he
couldn't handle all the percussion by himself. But Paulinho brought with him
the Brazilian samba tradition of adapting and improvising on primitive and
often homemade instruments. When de Costa's sound joined forces with Randy's
more conventional approach, we seemed to have the whole world covered.
Artistically speaking we were caught between a rock and a hard place. We had
worked with the smartest, hippest people in the world at Motown and Philly
International, and we would have been fools to discount the things we'd
absorbed from them, yet we couldn't be imitators. Fortunately we got a
running start with a song that Bobby Colomby brought us called "Blame It on
the Boogie." It was an up-tempo, finger-poppin'-time song that was a good
vehicle for the band approach we wanted to cultivate. I had fun slurring the
chorus: "Blame It on the Boogie" could be sung in one breath without putting
my lips together. We had a little fun with the credits on the inner sleeve
of the record; "Blame It on the Boogie" was written by three guys from
England, including one named Michael Jackson. It was a startling
coincidence. As it turned out, writing disco songs was a natural for me
because I was used to having dance breaks incorporated into all the major
songs I was asked to sing.
There was a lot of uncertainty and excitement about our future. We were
going through a lot of creative and personal changes - our music, the family
of dynamics, our desires and goals. All of this made me think more seriously
about how I was spending my life, especially in relation to other people my
age. I had always shouldered a lot of responsibility, but it suddenly seemed
that everyone wanted a piece of me. There wasn't that much to go around, and
I needed to be responsible to myself. I had to take stock of my life and
figure out what people wanted from me and to whom I was going to give
wholly. It was a hard thing for me to do, but I had to learn to be wary of
some of the people around me. God was at the top of my list of priorities,
and my mother and father and brothers and sisters followed. I was reminded
of that old song by Clarence Carter called "Patches," where the oldest son
is asked to take care of the farm after his father dies and his mother tells
him she's depending on him. Well, we weren't sharecroppers and I wasn't the
oldest, but those were slim shoulders on which to place such burdens. For
some reason I always found it very difficult to say no to my family and the
other people I loved. I would be asked to do something or take care of
something and I would agree, even if I worried that it might be more than I
I felt under a great deal of stress and I was often emotional. Stress can be
a terrible thing; you can't keep your emotions bottled up for long. There
were a lot of people at this time who wondered just how committed I was to
music after learning of my newfound interest in movies after being in one.
It was hinted that my decision to audition had come at a bad time for the
new band setup. It seemed, to outsiders, to come just as we were about to
get started. But of course it worked out just fine.
"That's What You Get for Being Polite" was my way of letting on that I knew
I wasn't living in an ivory tower and that I had insecurities and doubts
just as all older teenagers do. I was worried that the world and all it had
to offer could be passing me by even as I tried to get on top of my field.
There was a Gamble and Huff song called "Dreamer" on the first Epic album
which had this theme, and as I was learning it, I felt they could have
written it with me in mind. I have always been a dreamer. I set goals for
myself. I look at things and try to imagine what is possible and then hope
to surpass those boundaries.
In 1979 I turned twenty-one years old and began to take full control of my
career. My father's personal management contract with me ran out around this
time, and although it was a hard decision, the contract was not renewed.
Trying to fire your dad is not easy.
But I just didn't like the way certain things were being handled. Mixing
family and business can be a delicate situation. It can be great or it can
be awful; it depends on the relationships. Even at the best of times it's a
hard thing to do.
Did it change the relationship between me and my father? I don't know if it
did in his heart, but it certainly didn't in mine. It was a move I knew I
had to make because at the time I was beginning to feel that I was working
for him rather than that he was working for me . And on the creative side we
are of two completely different minds. He would come up with ideas that I
would totally disagree with because they weren't right for me. All I wanted
was control over my life. And I took it. I had to do it. Everyone comes to
that point, sooner or later, and I had been in the business for a long time.
I was pretty experienced for twenty-one - a fifteen-year veteran. We were
eager to take the Destiny band and concept on the road, but I got hoarse
from too many shows, too much singing. When we had to cancel some
performances, no one held it against me, but I felt as if I was holding my
brothers back after the great job they had done while we worked together to
get us all back on track. We made some makeshift adjustments in order to
ease the strain on my throat. Marlon took over for me in some passages that
required holding long notes. "Shake You Body (Down to the Ground)," our set
piece on the album, turned out to be a lifesaver for us onstage because we
already had a good jam in the studio to build on. It was frustrating to have
finally realised our dream of having our own music as the showpiece, rather
than the novelty song, and not being able to give it our very best shot. It
wasn't long, however, before our time would come.
In looking back, I realise I was more patient than perhaps my brothers
wanted me to be. As we were remixing Destiny , it occurred to me that we had
"left out" some things that I hadn't talked to my brothers about because I
wasn't sure they'd be as interested in them as I was. Epic had arranged in
the contract that they would handle any solo album I might decide to do.
Perhaps they were hedging their bets; if the Jacksons couldn't make their
new sound work, they could try to turn me into something they could mould
for the rest of my life. That might seem like a suspicious way of thinking,
but I knew from experience that money people always want to know what is
going on and what can happen and how to recoup their investment. It seemed
logical for them to think that way. In the light of what's happened since, I
wonder about those thoughts I had, but they were real at the time.
Destiny was our biggest success as an album, and we knew we had really
reached the point where people bought your record because they knew you were
good and knew you'd give them your very best on every song and every album.
I wanted my first solo album to be the best it could be.
I didn't want Off the Wall to sound like outtakes from Destiny . That's why
I wanted to hire an outside producer who wouldn't come to this project with
any preconceived notions about how it should sound. I also needed someone
with a good ear to help me choose material because I didn't have enough time
to write two sides of songs I'd be proud of. I knew the public expected more
than two good singles on an album, especially in the discos with their
extended cuts, and I wanted the fans to feel satisfied.
These are all reasons why Quincy proved to be the best producer I could have
asked for. Quincy Jones's friends called him "Q" for short because of a love
he has for barbecue. Later, after we'd finished Off the Wall , he invited me
to a concert of his orchestral music at the Hollywood Bowl, but I was so shy
at the time that I stood in the wings to watch the show as I had as a child.
He said he expected more from me than that, and we've been trying to live up
to each other's standards ever since.
That day I called to ask his advice about a producer, he started talking
about people in the business - who I could work with and who I'd have
trouble with. He knew track records, who was booked, who'd be too lax, who'd
put the "pedal to the metal." He knew Los Angeles better than Mayor Bradley,
and that's how he kept up with what was going on. As a jazz arranger,
orchestrator, and film composer, someone people thought was on the outside
looking in as far as pop music was concerned, he was an invaluable guide. I
was so glad that my outside source was a good friend who also happened to be
the perfect choice for a producer. He had a world of talent to choose from
among his contacts, and he was a good listener, as well as a brilliant man.
The Off the Wall album was originally going to be called Girlfriend . Paul
and Linda McCartney wrote a song of that title with me in mind before they
ever met me.
Paul McCartney always tells people this story about me calling him and
saying we should write some hit songs together.
But that's not exactly how we first met.
I saw Paul for the first time at a party on the Queen Mary , which is docked
in Long Beach. His daughter Heather got my number from someone and gave me a
call to invite me to this big party. She liked our music and we got to
talking. Much later, when his Wings over America tour was completed, Paul
and his family were in Los Angeles. They invited me to a party at the Harold
Lloyd estate. Paul McCartney and I first met at that party. We shook hands
amid a huge crowd of people, and he said, "You know, I've written a song for
you." I was very surprised and thanked him. And he started singing
"Girlfriend" to me at this party.
So we exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together soon, but
different projects and life just got in the way for both of us and we didn't
talk again for a couple of years. He ended up putting the song on his own
album London Town .
The strangest thing happened when we were making Off the Wall ; Quincy
walked up to me one day and said, "Michael, I've got a song that's perfect
for you." He played "Girlfriend" for me, not realising, of course, that Paul
had written it for me originally. When I told him, he was astonished and
pleased. We recorded it soon after and put it on the album. It was an
Quincy and I talked about Off the Wall and carefully planned the kind of
sound we wanted. When he asked me what I most wanted to have happen in the
studio, I told him, we've got to make it sound different from the Jacksons.
Hard words to spit out, considering how hard we'd worked to become the
Jacksons, but Quincy knew what I meant, and together we created an album
that reflected our goal. "Rock with You," the big hit single, was the sort
of thing I was aiming for. It was perfect for me to sing, and move to. Rod
Temperton, whom Quincy had known because of his work with the group Heatwave
on "Boogie Nights," had written the song with a more relentless, get-down
arrangement in mind, but Quincy softened the attack and slipped in a
synthesiser that sounded like a conch shell's insides on a beach. Q and I
were both very fond of Rod's work, and we eventually asked him to work on
stylising three of his songs for me, including the title cut. Rod was a
kindred spirit in many ways. Like me, he felt more at home singing and
writing about the night life than actually going out and living it. It
always surprises me when people assume that something an artist has created
is based on a true experience or reflects his or her own lifestyle. Often
nothing could be farther from the truth. I know I draw on my own experiences
at times, but I also hear and read things that trigger an idea for a song.
An artist's imagination is his greatest tool. It can create a mood or
feeling that people want to have, as well as transport you to a different
In the studio Quincy allowed the arrangers and musicians quite a bit of
freedom to express themselves, perhaps with the exception of the orchestral
arrangements, which are his forte. I brought Greg Phillinganes, a member of
the Destiny team, over to "run the floor" on numbers that he and I had
worked on together in Encino, while the studio people were being lined up
for the date. In addition to Greg, Paulinho da Costa was back on percussion
and Randy made a cameo appearance on "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough."
Quincy is amazing and doesn't just pick yes-men to do his bidding. I have
been around professionals all my life, and I can tell who is trying to keep
up, who can create, and who is capable of crossing swords once in a while in
a constructive way without losing sight of the shared goal. We had Louis
"Thunder Thumbs" Johnson, who had worked with Quincy on the Brothers Johnson
albums. We also had an all-star team of Wah Wah Watson, Marlo Henderson,
David Williams, and Larry Carlton from the Crusaders playing guitar on the
album. George Duke, Phil Upchurch, and Richard Heath were picked from the
cream of the jazz/funk crop, and yet they never let on that maybe this music
was a little different from what they were used to. Quincy and I had a good
working relationship, so we shared responsibilities and consulted with one
The Brothers Johnson notwithstanding, Quincy hadn't done much dance music
before Off the Wall , so on "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," "Working Day
and Night," and "Get on the Floor" Greg and I worked together to build a
thicker wall of sound in Quincy's studio. "Get on the Floor," though it
wasn't a single, was particularly satisfying because Louis Johnson gave me a
smooth-enough bottom to ride in the verses and let me come back stronger and
stronger with each chorus. Bruce Swedien, Quincy's engineer, put the final
touches on that mix, and I still get pleasure out of hearing it.
"Working Day and Night" was Paulinho's showcase, with my background vocals
hurrying to keep up with his grab bag of toys. Greg set up a prepared
electric piano with the timbre of a perfect acoustic tone, to knock out any
lingering echo. The lyrical theme was similar to "The Things I Do For You"
from Destiny , but since this was a refinement of something I'd said
earlier, I wanted to keep it simple and let the music put the song over the
"Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" had a spoken intro over bass, partly to
build up tension and surprise people with the swirling strings and
percussion. It was also unusual because of my vocal arrangement. On that cut
I sing in overdubs as a kind of group. I wrote myself a high part, one that
my solo voice couldn't carry on it's own, to fit in with the music I was
hearing in my head, so I let the arrangement take over from the singing. Q's
fade at the end was amazing, with guitars chopping like kalimbas, the
African thumb pianos. That song means a lot to me because it was the first
song I wrote as a whole. "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" was my first big
chance, and it went straight to number one. It was the song that won me my
first Grammy. Quincy had the confidence in me to encourage me to go into the
studio by myself, which put icing on the cake.
The ballads were what made Off the Wall a Michael Jackson album. I'd done
ballads with the brothers, but they had never been to enthusiastic about
them and did them more as a concession to me than anything else. Off the
Wall had, in addition to "Girlfriend," a slippery, engaging melody called "I
Can't Help It" which was memorable and great fun to sing but a little
quirkier than a gentle song like, say, "Rock with You."
Two of the biggest hits were "Off the Wall" and "Rock with You." You know,
so much up-tempo dance music is threatening, but I liked the coaxing, the
gentleness, taking a shy girl and letting her shed her fears rather than
forcing them out of her. On Off the Wall I went back to a high-pitched
voice, but "Rock with You" called for a more natural sound. I felt that if
you were having a party, those two songs would get people in the door, and
the harder boogie songs would send everyone home in a good mood. And then
there was "She's Out of My Life." Maybe that was too personal for a party.
It was for me. Sometimes it's hard for me to look my dates in the eye even
if I know them well. My dating and relationships with girls have not had the
happy ending I've been looking for. Something always seems to get in the
way. The things I share with millions of people aren't the sort of things
you share with one. Many girls want to know what makes me tick - why I live
the way I live or do the things I do - trying to get inside my head. They
want to rescue me from loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they
give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn't
wish on anybody, because I believe I'm one of the loneliest people in the
"She's Out of My Life" is about knowing that the barriers that have
separated me from others are temptingly low and seemingly easy to jump over
and yet they remain standing while what I really desire disappears from my
sight. Tom Bahler composed a beautiful bridge, which seemed right out of an
old Broadway musical. In reality, such problems are not so easily resolved
and the song presents this fact, that the problem is not overcome. We
couldn't put this cut at the beginning or the end of the record, because it
would have been such a downer. That's why when Stevie's song comes on
afterward, so gently and tentatively, as if it was opening a door that had
been bolted shut, I still go, "Whew." By the time Rod's "Burn This Disco
Out" closes the record, the trance is broken.
But I got too wrapped up in "She's Out of My Life." In this case, the
story's true - I cried at the end of a take, because the words suddenly had
such a strong effect on me. I had been letting so much build up inside me. I
was twenty-one years old, and I was so rich in some experiences while being
poor in moments of true joy. Sometimes I imagine that my life experience is
like an image in one of those trick mirrors in the circus, fat in one part
and thin to the point of disappearing in another. I was worried that would
show up on "She's Out of My Life," but if it touched people's heartstrings,
knowing that would make me feel less lonely.
When I got emotional after that take, the only people with me were Q and
Bruce Swedien. I remember burying my face in my hands and hearing only the
hum of the machinery as my sobs echoed in the room. Later I apologised, but
they said there was no need.
Making Off the Wall was one of the most difficult periods of my life,
despite the eventual success it enjoyed. I had very few close friends at the
time and felt very isolated. I was so lonely that I used to walk through my
neighbourhood hoping I'd run into somebody I could talk to and perhaps
become friends with. I wanted to meet people who didn't know who I was. I
wanted to run into somebody who would be my friend because they liked me and
needed a friend too, not because I was who I am. I wanted to meet anybody in
the neighbourhood - the neighbourhood kids, anybody.
Success definitely brings on loneliness. It's true. People think you're
lucky, that you have everything. They think you can go anywhere and do
anything, but that's not the point. One hungers for the basic stuff.
I've learned to cope better with these things now and I don't get nearly as
depressed as I used to. I didn't really have any girlfriends when I was in
school. There were girls I thought were cute, but I found it so difficult to
approach them. I was too embarrassed - I don't know why - it was just crazy.
There was one girl who was a good friend to me. I liked her, but I was too
embarrassed to tell her.
My first real date was with Tatum O'Neal. We met at a club on Sunset Strip
called On the Rox. We exchanged phone numbers and called each other often. I
talked to her for hours: from the road, from the studio, from home. On our
first date we went to a party at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion and had a
great time. She had held my hand for the first time that night at On the
Rox. When we met, I was sitting at this table and all of a sudden I felt
this soft hand reach over and grab mine. It was Tatum. This probably
wouldn't mean a lot to other people, but it was serious stuff to me. She
touched me . That's how I felt about it. In the past, girls had always
touched me on tour; grabbing at me and screaming, behind a wall of security
guards. But this was different, this was one-on-one, and that's always the
Our developed into a real close relationship. I fell in love with her (and
she with me) and we were very close for a long time. Eventually the
relationship transcended into a good friendship. We still talk now and then,
and I guess you'd have to say she was my first love - after Diana. When I
heard Diana Ross was getting married, I was happy for her because I knew it
would make her very joyous. Still, it was hard for me, because I had to walk
around pretending to be overwhelmed that Diana was getting married to this
man I'd never met. I wanted her to be happy, but I have to admit that I was
a bit hurt and a little jealous because I've always loved Diana and always
Another love was Brooke Shields. We were romantically serious for a while.
There have been a lot of wonderful women in my life, women whose names
wouldn't mean anything to the readers of this book, and it would be unfair
to discuss them because they are not celebrities and are unaccustomed to
having their names in print. I value my privacy and therefore I respect
theirs as well.
Liza Minelli is a person whose friendship I'll always cherish. She's like my
show business sister. We get together and talk about the business; it comes
out of our pores. We both eat, sleep, and drink various moves and songs and
dance. We have the best time together. I love her.
Right after we finished Off the Wall , I plunged into making the Triumph
album with my brothers. We wanted to combine the best of both albums for our
tour. "Can You Feel It?" was the first cut on the album, and it had the
closest thing to a rock feel that the Jacksons had ever done. It wasn't
really dance music either. We had it in mind for the video that opened our
tour, kind of like our own Also Sprach Zarathrustra , the 2001 theme. Jackie
and I had thought of combining the band sound with a gospel/children's choir
feel. That was a nod a Gamble and Huff, in a way, because the song was a
celebration of love taking over, cleansing the sins of the world. Randy's
singing is so good, even if his range is not all he'd like it to be. His
breathing and phrasing kept me pumped up on my toes when we sang it. There
was a bright foghorn-type keyboard that I worked on for hours, going over it
and over it again, until I got it the way I wanted it. We had six minutes,
and I don't think it was one second too long.
"Lovely One" was an extension of "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground," with
that lighter Off the Wall sound injected. I tried out a newer, more ethereal
voice on Jackie's "Your Ways," with the keyboards adding a faraway quality.
Paulinho brought out all the artillery: triangles, skulls, gongs. This
song's about a strange girl who is the way she is and there's nothing I can
do about it, other than enjoy it when I can.
"Everybody" is more playful than the Off the Wall dance tunes, with Mike
McKinney propelling it like a plane turning and bearing down. The background
vocals suggest "Get on the Floor's" influence, but Quincy's sound is deeper,
like you're in the eye of the storm - our sound was more like going up the
glass elevator to the top floor while looking down, rising effortlessly.
"Time Waits for No One" was written by Jackie and Randy with my voice and
style in mind. They knew they were trying to keep up with the Off the Wall
songwriters and they did a very good job. "Give It Up" gave everyone a
chance to sing. Marlon in particular. We strayed from the band sound on
those tracks, perhaps sinking back into that Philly trap of letting the
arrangement overwhelm us. "Walk Right Now" and "Wondering Who" were closer
to the Destiny sound, but for the most part they were suffering from too
many cooks and not enough broth.
There was one exception: "Heartbreak Hotel." I swear that was a phrase that
came out of my head and I wasn't thinking of any other song when I wrote it.
The record company printed it on the cover as "This Place Hotel," because of
the Elvis Presley connection. As important as he was to music, black as well
as white, he just wasn't an influence on me. I guess he was too early for
me. Maybe it was timing more than anything else. By the time our song had
come out, people thought that if I kept living in seclusion the way I was, I
might die the way he did. The parallels aren't there as far as I'm concerned
and I was never much for scare tactics. Still, the way Elvis destroyed
himself interests me, because I don't ever want to walk those grounds
LaToya was asked to contribute the scream that opens the song - not the most
auspicious start to a recording career, I'll admit, but she was just getting
her feet wet in the studio. She has made some good records since and is
quite accomplished. The scream was the kind that normally shatters a bad
dream, but our intention was to have the dream only begin, to make the
listener wonder whether it was a dream or reality. That was the effect I
think we got. The three female backup singers were amused when they were
doing the scary backup effects that I wanted, until they actually heard them
in the mix.
"Heartbreak Hotel" was the most ambitious song I had composed. I think I
worked on a number of levels: You could dance to it, sing along with it, get
scared by it, and just listen. I had to tack on a slow piano and cello coda
that ended on a positive note to reassure the listener; there's no point in
trying to scare someone if there isn't something to bring the person back
safe and sound from where you've taken them. "Heartbreak Hotel" had revenge
in it and I am fascinated by the concept of revenge. It's something I can't
understand. The idea of making someone "pay" for something they've done to
you or that you imagine they've done to you is totally alien to me. The
setup showed my own fears and for the first time being helped quell them.
There were so many sharks in this business looking for blood in the water.
If this song, and later "Billie Jean," seemed to cast women in an
unfavourable light, it was not meant to be taken as a personal statement.
Needless to say, I love the interaction between the sexes; it is a natural
part of life and I love women. I just think that when sex is used as a form
of blackmail or power, it's a repugnant use of one of God's gifts.
Triumph gave us that final burst of energy we needed to put together a
perfect show, with no marginal material. We began rehearsing with our
touring band, which included bass player Mike McKinney. David Williams would
travel with us too, but he was now a permanent member of the band.
The upcoming tour was going to be a big undertaking. We had special effects
arranged for us by the great magician Doug Henning. I wanted to disappear
completely in a puff of smoke right after "Don't Stop." He had to coordinate
the special effects with the Showco people who controlled the whole setup. I
was happy to talk with him while we walked through the routine. It seemed
almost unfair for him to give me his secrets, and apart from the money I
wasn't offering him anything he could make use of in return. I felt a little
embarrassed about that, yet I really wanted our show to be great and I knew
Henning's contribution would be spectacular. We were competing with bands
like Earth, Wind, and Fire and the Commodores for the position of top band
in the country, and we knew there were people who felt that the Jackson
brothers had been around for ten years and were finished.
I had worked hard on the concept for the set for the upcoming tour. It had
the feel of Close Encounters behind it. I was trying to make the statement
that there was life and meaning beyond space and time and the peacock had
burst forth ever brighter and ever prouder. I wanted our film to reflect
this idea, too.
My pride in the rhythms, the technical advances, and the success of Off the
Wall was offset by the jolt I got when the Grammy nominations were announced
for 1979. Although Off the Wall had been one of the most popular records of
the year, it received only one nomination: Best R&B Vocal Performance. I
remember where I was when I got the news. I felt ignored by my peers and it
hurt. People told me later that it surprised the industry too.
I was disappointed and then I got excited thinking about the album to come.
I said to myself, "Wait until next time" - they won't be able to ignore the
next album. I watched the ceremony on television and it was nice to win my
category, but I was still upset by what I perceived as the rejection of my
peers. I just kept thinking, "Next time, next time." In many ways an artist
is his work. It's difficult to separate the two. I think I can be brutally
objective about my work as I create it, and if something doesn't work, I can
feel it, but when I turn in a finished album - or song - you can be sure
that I've given it every ounce of energy and God-given talent that I have.
Off the Wall was well received by my fans and I think that's why the Grammy
nominations hurt. That experience lit a fire in my soul. All I could think
of was the next album and what I would do with it. I wanted it to be truly
Chapter Five - The Moonwalk
Off the Wall was released in August 1979, the same month I turned twenty-one
and took control of my own affairs, and it was definitely one of the major
landmarks of my life. It meant a great deal to me, because its eventual
success proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a former "child star" could
mature into a recording artist with contemporary appeal. Off the Wall also
went a step beyond the dance grooves we had cooked up. When we started the
project, Quincy and I talked about how important it was to capture passion
and strong feelings in a recorded performance. I still think that's what we
achieved on the ballad "She's Out of My Life," and to a lesser extent on
"Rock with You."
Looking back, I can view the whole tapestry and see how Off the Wall
prepared me for the work we would do on the album that became Thriller.
Quincy, Rod Temperton, and many of the musicians who played on Off the Wall
would help me realise a dream that I had had for a long time. Off the Wall
had sold almost six million copies in this country, but I wanted to make an
album that would be even bigger. Ever since I was a little boy, I had
dreamed of creating the biggest-selling record of all time. I remember going
swimming as a child and making a wish before I jumped into the pool.
Remember, I grew up knowing the industry, understanding goals, and being
told what was and was not possible. I wanted to do something special. I'd
stretch my arms out, as if I were sending my thoughts right up into space.
I'd make my wish, then I'd dive into the water. I'd say to myself, "This is
my dream. This is my wish," every time before I'd dive into the water.
I believe in wishes and in a person's ability to make a wish come true. I
really do. Whenever I saw a sunset, I would quietly make my secret wish
right before the sun tucked under the western horizon and disappeared. It
would seem as if the sun had taken my wish with it. I'd make it right before
that last speck of light vanished. And a wish is more than a wish, it's a
goal. It's something your conscious and subconscious can help make reality.
I remember being in the studio once with Quincy and Rod Temperton while we
were working on Thriller . I was playing a pinball machine and one of them
asked me, "If this album doesn't do as well as Off the Wall , will you be
I remember feeling upset - hurt that the question was even raised. I told
them Thriller had to do better than Off the Wall . I admitted that I wanted
this album to be the biggest-selling album of all time.
They started laughing. It was a seemingly unrealistic thing to want.
There were times during the Thriller project when I would get emotional or
upset because I couldn't get the people working with me to see what I was.
That still happens to me sometimes. Often people just don't see what I see.
They have too much doubt. You can't do your best when you're doubting
yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, who will? Just doing as well as
you did last time is not good enough. I think of it as the "Try to get what
you can" mentality. It doesn't require you to stretch, to grow. I don't
believe in that.
I believe we are powerful, but we don't use our minds to full capacity. Your
mind is powerful enough to help you attain whatever you want. I knew what we
could do with that record. We had a great team there, a lot of talent and
good ideas, and I knew we could do anything. The success of Thriller
transformed many of my dreams into reality. It did become the
biggest-selling album of all time, and that fact appeared on the cover of
The Guinness Book of World Records.
Making the Thriller album was very hard work, but it's true that you only
get out of something what you put into it. I'm a perfectionist: I'll work
until I drop. And I worked so hard on that album. It helped that Quincy
showed great confidence in what we were doing during those sessions. I guess
I had proved myself to him during our work on Off the Wall . He listened to
what I had to say and helped me accomplish what I had hoped to on that
album, but he showed even more faith in me during the making of Thriller .
He realised I had the confidence and experience I needed to make that record
and at times he wasn't in the studio with us for that reason. I'm really
very self-confident when it comes to my work. When I take on a project, I
believe in it 100 percent. I really put my soul into it. I'd die for it.
That's how I am.
Quincy is brilliant at balancing out an album, creating the right mix of
up-tempo numbers and slow ones. We started out working with Rod Temperton on
songs for the Thriller album, which was originally called Starlight . I was
writing songs myself while Quincy was listening to other people's songs,
hoping to find just the right ones for the album. He's good at knowing what
I'll like and what will work for me. We both share the same philosophy about
making albums; we don't believe in B-sides or album songs. Every song should
be able to stand on its own as a single, and we always push for this.
I had finished some songs of my own, but I didn't give them to Quincy until
I saw what had come in from other writers. The first song I had was
"Startin' Something," which I had written when we were doing Off the Wall
but had never given to Quincy for that album. Sometimes I have a song I've
written that I really like and I just can't bring myself to present it.
While we were making Thriller , I even held on to "Beat It" for a long time
before I played it for Quincy. He kept telling me that we needed a great
rock song for the album. He'd say, "Come on, where is it? I know you got
it." I like my songs but initially I'm shy about playing them for people,
because I'm afraid they won't like them and that's a painful experience.
He finally convinced me to let him hear what I had. I brought out "Beat It"
and played it for him and he went crazy. I felt on top of the world.
When we were about to start work on Thriller , I called Paul McCartney in
London and this time I did say, "Let's get together and write some hits."
Our collaboration produced "Say Say Say" and "The Girl Is Mine."
Quincy and I eventually chose "The Girl Is Mine" as the obvious first single
from Thriller . We really didn't have much choice. When you have two strong
names like that together on a song, it has to come out first or it gets
played to death and overexposed. We had to get it out of the way.
When I approached Paul, I wanted to repay the favour he had done me in
contributing "Girlfriend" to Off the Wall . I wrote "The Girl Is Mine,"
which I knew would be right for his voice and mine working together, and we
also did work on "Say Say Say," which we would finish up later with George
Martin, the great Beatles producer.
"Say Say Say" was coauthored by Paul, a man who could play all the
instruments in the studio and score every part, and a kid, me, who couldn't.
Yet we worked together as equals and enjoyed ourselves. Paul never had to
carry me in that studio. The collaboration was also a real step forward for
me in terms of confidence, because there was no Quincy Jones watching over
me to correct my mistakes. Paul and I shared the same idea of how a pop song
should work and it was a real treat to work with him. I feel that ever since
John Lennon's death he has had to live up to expectations people had no
right to hang on him; Paul McCartney has given so much to this industry and
to his fans.
Eventually, I would buy the ATV music publishing catalogue, which included
many of the great Lennon-McCartney songs. But most people don't know that it
was Paul who introduced me to the idea of getting involved in music
publishing. I was staying with Paul and Linda at their house in the country
when Paul told me about his own involvement in music publishing. He handed
me a little book with MPL printed on the cover. He smiled as I opened it,
because he knew I was going to find the contents exciting. It contained a
list of all the songs Paul owns and he'd been buying the rights to songs for
a long time. I had never given the idea of buying songs any thought before.
When the ATV music publishing catalogue, which contains many
Lennon-McCartney songs, went on sale, I decided to put in a bid.
I consider myself a musician who is incidentally a businessman, and Paul and
I had both learned the hard way about business and the importance of
publishing and royalties and the dignity of songwriting. Songwriting should
be treated as the lifeblood of popular music. The creative process doesn't
involve time clocks or quota systems, it involves inspiration and the
willingness to follow through. When I was sued my someone I had never heard
of for "The Girl Is Mine," I was quite willing to stand on my reputation. I
stated that many of my ideas come in dreams, which some people thought was a
convenient cop-out, but it's true. Our industry is so lawyer-heavy that
getting sued for something you didn't do seems to be as much a part of the
initiation process as winning amateur night used to be.
"Not My Lover" was a title we almost used for "Billie Jean" because Q had
some objections to calling the song "Billie Jean," my original title. He
felt people might immediately think of Billie Jean King, the tennis player.
A lot of people have asked me about that song, and the answer is very
simple. It's just a case of a girl who says that I'm the father of her child
and I'm pleading my innocence because "the kid is not my son."
There was never a real "Billie Jean." (Except for the ones who came after
the song.) The girl in the song is a composite of people we've been plagued
by over the years. This kind of thing has happened to some of my brothers
and I used to be really amazed by it. I couldn't understand how these girls
could say they were carrying someone's child when it wasn't true. I can't
imagine lying about something like that. Even today there are girls who come
to the gate at our house and say the strangest things, like, "Oh, I'm
Michael's wife," or "I'm just dropping off the keys to our apartment." I
remember one girl who used to drive us completely crazy. I really think that
she believed in her mind that she belonged with me. There was another girl
who claimed I had gone to bed with her, and she made threats. There've been
a couple of serious scuffles at the gate on Hayvenhurst, and they can get
dangerous. People yell into the intercom that Jesus sent them to speak with
me and Gold told them to come - unusual and unsettling things.
A musician knows hit material. It has to feel right. Everything has to feel
in place. It fulfills you and it makes you feel good. You know it when you
hear it. That's how I felt about "Billie Jean." I knew it was going to be
big while I was writing it. I was really absorbed in that song. One day
during a break in a recording session I was riding down the Ventura Freeway
with Nelson Hayes, who was working with me at the time. "Billie Jean" was
going around in my head and that's all I was thinking about. We were getting
off the freeway when a kid on a motorcycle pulls up to us and says, "Your
car's on fire." Suddenly we noticed the smoke and pulled over and the whole
bottom of the Rolls-Royce was on fire. That kid probably saved our lives. If
the car had exploded, we could have been killed. But I was so absorbed by
this tune floating in my head that I didn't even focus on the awful
possibilities until later. Even while we were getting help and finding an
alternate way to get where we were going, I was silently composing
additional material, that's how involved I was with "Billie Jean."
Before I wrote "Beat It," I had been thinking I wanted to write the type of
rock song that I would go out and buy, but also something totally different
from the rock music I was hearing on Top 40 radio at the time.
"Beat It" was written with school kids in mind. I've always loved creating
pieces that will appeal to kids. It's fun to write for them and know what
they like because they're a very demanding audience. You can't fool them.
They are still the audience that's most important to me, because I really
care about them. If they like it, it's a hit, no matter what the charts say.
The lyrics of "Beat It" express something I would do if I were in trouble.
Its message - that we should abhor violence - is something I believe deeply.
It tells kids to be smart and avoid trouble. I don't mean to say you should
turn the other cheek while someone kicks in your teeth, but, unless your
back is against the wall and you have absolutely no choice, just get away
before violence breaks out. If you fight and get killed, you've gained
nothing and lost everything. You're the loser, and so are the people who
love you. That's what "Beat It" is supposed to get across. To me true
bravery is settling differences without a fight and having the wisdom to
make that solution possible.
When Q called Eddie Van Halen, he thought it was a crank call. Because of
the bad connection, Eddie was convinced that the voice on the other end was
a fake. After being told to get lost, Q simply dialed the number again.
Eddie agreed to play the session for us and gave us an incredible guitar
solo on "Beat It."
The newest members of our team were the band Toto, who had the hit records
"Rosanna" and "Africa." They had been well known as individual session
musicians before they came together as a group. Because of their experience,
they knew both sides of studio work, when to be independent, and when to be
cooperative and follow the producer's lead. Steve Porcaro had worked on Off
the Wall during a break as keyboardist for Toto. This time he brought his
band mates with him. Musicologists know that the band's leader David Paich
is the son of Marty Paich, who worked on Ray Charles' great records like "I
Can't Stop Loving You."
I love "Pretty Young Thing," which was written by Quincy and James Ingram.
"Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" had whetted my appetite for the spoken
intro, partly because I didn't think my speaking voice was something my
singing needed to hide. I have always had a soft speaking voice. I haven't
cultivated it or chemically altered it: that's me - take it or leave it.
Imagine what it must be like to be criticised for something about yourself
that is natural and God given. Imagine the hurt of having untruths spread by
the press, of having people wonder if you're telling the truth - defending
yourself because someone decided it would make good copy and would force you
to deny what they said, thus creating another story. I've tried not to
answer such ridiculous charges in the past because that dignifies them and
the people who make them. Remember, the press is a business: Newspapers and
magazines are in business to make money - sometimes at the expense of
accuracy, fairness, and even the truth.
Anyway, in the intro to "Pretty Young Thing," I sounded a bit more confident
than I had on the last album. I liked the "code" in the lyrics, and
"tenderoni" and "sugar fly" were fun rock'n'roll-type words that you
couldn't find in the dictionary. I got Janet and LaToya into the studio for
this one, and they produced the "real" backup vocals. James Ingram and I
programmed an electronic device called a Vocoder, which gave out that E.T.
"Human Nature" was the song the Toto guys brought to Q, and he and I both
agreed that the song had the prettiest melody we'd heard in a long time,
even more than "Africa." It's music with wings. People asked me about the
lyrics: "Why does he do me that way . . . I like loving this way . . ."
People often think the lyrics you're singing have some special personal
significance for you, which often isn't true. It is important to reach
people, to move them. Sometimes one can do this with the mosaic of the music
melody arrangement and lyrics, sometimes it is the intellectual content of
the lyrics. I was asked a lot of questions about "Muscles," the song I wrote
and produced for Diana Ross. That song fulfilled a lifelong dream of
returning some of the many favours she's done for me. I have always loved
Diana and looked up to her. Muscles, by the way, is the name of my snake.
"The Lady in My Life" was one of the most difficult tracks to cut. We were
used to doing a lot of takes in order to get a vocal as nearly perfect as
possible, but Quincy wasn't satisfied with my work on that song, even after
literally dozens of takes. Finally he took me aside late one session and
told me he wanted me to beg. That's what he said. He wanted me to go back to
the studio and literally beg for it. So I went back in and had them turn off
the studio lights and close the curtain between the studio and the control
room so I wouldn't feel self-conscious. Q started the tape and I begged. The
result is what you hear in the grooves.
Eventually we came under tremendous pressure from our record company to
finish Thriller . When a record company rushes you, they really rush you,
and they were rushing us hard on Thriller . They said it had to be ready on
a certain date, do or die.
So we went through a period where we were breaking our backs to get the
album done by their deadline. There were a lot of compromises made on the
mixes of various tracks, and on whether certain tracks were even going to be
on the record. We cut so many corners that we almost lost the whole album.
When we finally listened to the tracks we were going to hand in, Thriller
sounded so crappy to me that tears came to my eyes. We had been under
enormous pressure because while we were trying to finish Thriller we also
had been working on The E.T. Storybook , and there had been deadline
pressure on that as well. All these people were fighting back and forth with
each other, and we came to realise that the sad truth was that the mixes of
Thriller didn't work.
We sat there in the studio, Westlake Studio in Hollywood, and listened to
the whole album. I felt devastated. All this pent-up emotion came out. I got
angry and left the room. I told my people, "That's it, we're not releasing
it. Call CBS and tell them they are not getting this album. We are not
Because I knew it was wrong. If we hadn't stopped the process and examined
what we were doing, the record would have been terrible. It never would have
been reviewed the way it was because, as we learned, you can ruin a great
album in the mix. It's like taking a great movie and ruining it in the
ending. You simply have to take your time.
Some things can't be rushed.
There was a bit of yelling and screaming from the record people, but in the
end they were smart and understood. They knew too; it was just that I was
the first to say it. Finally I realised I had to do the whole thing - mix
the entire album - all over again.
We took a couple of days off, drew a deep breath, and stepped back. Then we
came to it fresh, cleaned our ears out, and began to mix two songs a week.
When it was done - boom - it hit us hard. CBS could hear the difference too.
Thriller was a tough project.
It felt so good when we finished. I was so excited I couldn't wait for it to
come out. When we finished, there wasn't any kind of celebration that I can
recall. We didn't go out to a disco or anything. We just rested. I prefer
just being with people I really like anyway. That's my way of celebrating.
The three videos that came out of Thriller - "Billie Jean," "Beat It," and
"Thriller" - were all part of my original concept for the album. I was
determined to present this music as visually as possible. At the time I
would look at what people were doing with video, and I couldn't understand
why so much of it seemed so primitive and weak. I saw kids watching and
accepting boring videos because they had no alternatives. My goal is to do
the best I can in every area, so why work hard on an album and then produce
a terrible video? I wanted something that would glue you to the set,
something you'd want to watch over and over. The idea from the beginning was
to give people quality. So I wanted to be a pioneer in this relatively new
medium and make the best short music movies we could make. I don't even like
to call them videos. On the set I explained that we were doing a film , and
that was how I approached it. I wanted the most talented people in the
business - the best cinematographer, the best director, the best lighting
people we could get. We weren't shooting on videotape; it was 35-mm film. We
For the first video, "Billie Jean," I interviewed several directors, looking
for someone who seemed really unique. Most of them didn't present me with
anything that was truly innovative. At the same time I was trying to think
bigger, the record company was giving me a problem on the budget. So I ended
up paying for "Beat It" and "Thriller" because I didn't want to argue with
anybody about money. I own both of those films myself as a result.
"Billie Jean" was done with CBS's money - about $250,000. At the time that
was a lot of money for a video, but it really pleased me that they believed
in me that much. Steve Baron, who directed "Billie Jean," had very
imaginative ideas, although he didn't agree at first that there should be
dancing in it. I felt that people wanted to see dancing. It was great to
dance for the video. That freeze-frame where I go on my toes was
spontaneous; so were many of the other moves.
"Billie Jean's" video made a big impression on the MTV audience and was a
"Beat It" was directed by Bob Giraldi, who had done a lot of commercials. I
remember being in England when it was decided that "Beat It" would be the
next single released from Thriller , and we had to choose a director for the
I felt "Beat It" should be interpreted literally, the way it was written,
one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough . That's
what "Beat It" was about.
When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi's demo reel and knew that he was
the director I wanted for "Beat It." I loved the way he told a story in his
work, so I talked with him about "Beat It." We went over things, my ideas
and his ideas, and that's how it was created. We played with the storyboard
and moulded and sculpted it.
I had street gangs on my mind when I wrote "Beat It," so we rounded up some
of the toughest gangs in Los Angeles and put them to work on the video. It
turned out to be a good idea, and a great experience for me. We had some
rough kids on that set, tough kids, and they hadn't been to wardrobe. Those
guys in the pool room in the first scene were serious; they were not actors.
That stuff was real.
Now I hadn't been around really tough people all that much, and these guys
were more than a little intimidating at first. But we had security around
and were ready for anything that might happen. Of course we soon realised we
didn't need any of this, that the gang members were mostly humble, sweet,
and kind in their dealings with us. We fed them during breaks, and they all
cleaned up and put their trays away. I came to realise that the whole thing
about being bad and tough is that it's done for recognition. All along these
guys had wanted to be seen and respected, and now we were going to put them
on TV. They loved it. "Hey, look at me, I'm somebody!" And I think that's
really why many of the gangs act the way they do. They're rebels, but rebels
who want attention and respect. Like all of us, they just want to be seen.
And I gave them that chance. For a few days at least they were stars.
They were so wonderful to me - polite, quiet, supportive. After the dance
numbers they'd compliment my work, and I could tell they really meant it.
They wanted a lot of autographs and frequently stood around my trailer.
Whatever they wanted, I gave them: photographs, autographs, tickets for the
Victory tour, anything. They were a nice bunch of guys.
The truth of that experience came out on the screen. The "Beat It" video was
menacing, and you could feel those people's emotions. You felt the
experience of the streets and the reality of their lives. You look at "Beat
It" and know those kids are tough. They were being themselves, and it came
across. It was nothing like actors acting; it was as far from that as
possible. They were being themselves; that feeling you got was their spirit.
I've always wondered if they got the same message from the song that I did.
When Thriller first came out, the record company assumed it would sell a
couple of million copies. In general record companies never believe a new
album will do considerably better than the last one you did. The figure you
either got lucky last time or the number you last sold is the size of your
audience. They usually just ship a couple of million out to the stores to
cover the sales in case you get lucky again.
That's how it usually works, but I wanted to alter their attitude with
One of the people who helped me with Thriller was Frank Dileo. Frank was
vice president for promotion at Epic when I met him. Along with Ron Weisner
and Fred DeMann, Frank was responsible for turning my dream for Thriller
into a reality. Frank heard parts of Thriller for the first time at Westlake
Studio in Hollywood, where much of the album was recorded. He was there with
Freddie DeMann, one of my managers, and Quincy and I played them "Beat It"
and a little bit of "Thriller," which we were still working on. They were
very impressed, and we started to talk seriously about how to "break" this
album wide open.
Frank really worked hard and proved to be my right hand during the years
ahead. His brilliant understanding of the recording industry proved
invaluable. For instance, we released "Beat It" as a single while "Billie
Jean" was still at number one. CBS screamed, "You're crazy. This will kill
¦Billie Jean'" But Frank told them not to worry, that both songs would be
number one and both would be in the Top 10 at the same time. They were.
By the spring of 1983 it was clear that the album was going to go crazy.
Over the top. Every time they released another single, sales of the album
would go even higher.
Then the "Beat It" video took off.
On May 16, 1983, I performed "Billie Jean" on a network telecast in honour
of Motown's twenty-fifth anniversary. Almost fifty million people saw that
show. After that, many things changed.
The Motown 25 show had actually been taped a month earlier, in April. The
whole title was Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever , and I'm forced to
admit I had to be talked into doing it. I'm glad I did because the show
eventually produced some of the happiest and proudest moments of my life.
As I mentioned earlier, I said no to the idea at first. I had been asked to
appear as a member of the Jacksons and then do a dance number on my own. But
none of us were Motown artists any longer. There were lengthy debates
between me and my managers, Weisner and DeMann. I thought about how much
Berry Gordy had done for me and the group, but I told my managers and Motown
that I didn't want to go on TV. My whole attitude toward TV is fairly
negative. Eventually Berry came to see me to discuss it. I was editing "Beat
It" at the Motown studio, and someone must have told him I was in the
building. He came down to the studio and talked to me about it at length. I
said, "Okay, but if I do it, I want to do ¦Billie Jean.'" It would have been
the only non-Motown song in the whole show. He told me that's what he wanted
me to do anyway. So we agreed to do a Jacksons' medley, which would include
Jermaine. We were all thrilled.
So I gathered my brothers and rehearsed them for this show. I really worked
them, and it felt nice, a bit like the old days of the Jackson 5. I
choreographed them and rehearsed them for days at our house in Encino,
videotaping every rehearsal so we could watch it later. Jermaine and Marlon
also made their contributions. Next we went to Motown in Pasadena for
rehearsals. We did our act and, even though we reserved our energy and never
went all out at rehearsal, all the people there were clapping and coming
around and watching us. Then I did my "Billie Jean" rehearsal. I just walked
through it because as yet I had nothing planned. I hadn't had time because I
was so busy rehearsing the group.
The next day I called my management office and said, "Please order me a
spy's hat, like a cool fedora - something that a secret agent would wear." I
wanted something sinister and special, a real slouchy kind of hat. I still
didn't have a very good idea of what I was going to do with "Billie Jean."
During the Thriller sessions, I had found a black jacket, and I said, "You
know, someday I'm going to wear this to perform. It was so perfect and so
show business that I wore it on Motown 25 .
But the night before the taping, I still had no idea what I was going to do
with my solo number. So I went down to the kitchen of our house and played
"Billie Jean." Loud. I was in there by myself, the night before the show,
and I pretty much stood there and let the song tell me what to do. I kind of
let the dance create itself. I really let it talk to me; I heard the beat
come in, and I took this spy's hat and started to pose and step, letting the
"Billie Jean" rhythm create the movements. I felt almost compelled to let it
create itself. I couldn't help it. And that - being able to "step back" and
let the dance come through - was a lot of fun.
I had also been practising certain steps and movements, although most of the
performance was actually spontaneous. I had been practising the Moonwalk for
some time, and it dawned on me in our kitchen that I would finally do the
Moonwalk in public on Motown 25.
Now the Moonwalk was already out on the street by this time, but I enhanced
it a little when I did it. It was born as a break-dance step, a "popping"
type of thing that blacks kids had created dancing on the street corners in
the ghetto. Black people are truly innovative dancers; they create many of
the new dances, pure and simple. So I said, "This is my chance to do it,"
and I did it. These three kids taught it to me. They gave me the basics -
and I had been doing it a lot in private. I had practised it together with
certain other steps. All I was really sure of was that on the bridge to
"Billie Jean" I was going to walk backward and forward at the same time,
like walking on the moon.
One the day of the taping, Motown was running behind schedule. Late. So I
went off and rehearsed by myself. By then I had my spy hat. My brothers
wanted to know what the hat was for, but I told them they'd have to wait and
see. But I did ask Nelson Hayes for a favour. "Nelson - after I do the set
with my brothers and the lights go down, sneak the hat out to me in the
dark. I'll be in the corner, next to the wings, talking to the audience, but
you sneak that hat back there and put it in my hand in the dark."
So after my brothers and I finished performing, I walked over to the side of
the stage and said, "You're beautiful! I'd like to say those were the good
old days; those were magic moments with all my brothers, including Jermaine.
But what I really like" - and Nelson is sneaking the hat into my hand - "are
the newer songs." I turned around and grabbed the hat and went into "Billie
Jean," into that heavy rhythm; I could tell that people in the audience were
really enjoying my performance. My brothers told me they were crowding the
wings watching me with their mouths open, and my parents and sisters were
out there in the audience. But I just remember opening my eyes at the end of
the thing and seeing this sea of people standing up, applauding. And I felt
so many conflicting emotions. I knew I had done my best and felt good, so
good. But at the same time I felt disappointed in myself. I had planned to
do one really long spin and to stop on my toes, suspended for a moment, but
I didn't stay on my toes as long as I wanted. I did the spin and I landed on
one toe. I wanted to just stay there, just freeze there, but it didn't work
quite as I'd planned.
When I got backstage, the people back there were congratulating me. I was
still disappointed about the spin. I had been concentrating so hard and I'm
such a perfectionist. At the same time I knew this was one of the happiest
moments of my life. I knew that for the first time my brothers had really
gotten a chance to watch me and see what I was doing, how I was evolving.
After the performance, each of them hugged and kissed me backstage. They had
never done that before, and I felt happy for all of us. It was so wonderful
when they kissed me like that. I loved it! I mean, we hug all the time. My
whole family embraces a lot, except for my father. He's the only one who
doesn't. Whenever the rest of us see each other, we embrace, but when they
all kissed me that night, I felt as if I had been blessed by them.
The performance was still gnawing at me, and I wasn't satisfied until a
little boy came up to me backstage. He was about ten years old and was
wearing a tuxedo. He looked up at me with stars in his eyes, frozen where he
stood, and said, "Man, who ever taught you to dance like that?" I kind of
laughed and said, "Practice, I guess." And this boy was looking at me,
awestruck. I walked away, and for the first time that evening I felt really
good about what I had accomplished that night. I said to myself, I must have
done really well because children are honest. When that kid said what he
did, I really felt that I had done a good job. I was so moved by the whole
experience that I went right home and wrote down everything which had
happened that night. My entry ended with my encounter with the child.
The day after the Motown 25 show, Fred Astaire called me on the telephone.
He said - these are his exact words - "You're a hell of a mover. Man, you
really put them on their asses last night." That's what Fred Astaire said to
me. I thanked him. Then he said, "You're an angry dancer. I'm the same way.
I used to do the same thing with my cane."
I had met him once or twice in the past, but this was the first time he had
ever called me. He went on to say, "I watched the special last night; I
taped it and I watched it again this morning. You're a hell of a mover."
It was the greatest compliment I had ever received in my life, and the only
one I had ever wanted to believe. For Fred Astaire to tell me that meant
more to me than anything. Later my performance was nominated for an Emmy
Award in a musical category, but I lost to Leontyne Price. It didn't matter.
Fred Astaire had told me things I would never forget - that was my reward.
Later he invited me to his house, and there were more compliments from him
until I really blushed. He went over my "Billie Jean" performance, step by
step. The great choreographer Hermes Pan, who had choreographed Fred's
dances in the movies, came over, and I showed them how to Moonwalk and
demonstrated some other steps that really interested them.
Not long after that Gene Kelly came by my house to visit and also said he
liked my dancing. It was a fantastic experience, that show, because I felt I
had been inducted into an informal fraternity of dancers, and I felt so
honoured because these were the people I most admired in the world.
Right after Motown 25 my family read a lot of stuff in the press about my
being "the new Sinatra" and as "exciting as Elvis" - that kind of thing. It
was very nice to hear, but I knew the press could be so fickle. One week
they love you, and the next week they act like you're rubbish. Later I gave
the glittery black jacket I wore on Motown 25 to Sammy Davis as a present.
He said he was going to do a takeoff of me on stage, and I said, "Here, you
want to wear this when you do it?" He was so happy. I love Sammy. He's such
a fine man and a real showman. One of the best. I had been wearing a single
glove for years before Thriller . I felt that one glove was cool. Wearing
two gloves seemed so ordinary, but a single glove was different and was
definitely a look. But I've long believed that thinking too much about your
look is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, because an artist should
let his style evolve naturally, spontaneously. You can't think about these
things; you have to feel your way into them.
I actually had been wearing the glove for a long time, but it hadn't gotten
a lot of attention until all of a sudden it hit with Thriller in 1983. I was
wearing it on some of the old tours back in the 1970s, and I wore one glove
during the Off the Wall tour and on the cover of the live album that came
It's so show business that one glove. I love wearing it. Once, by
coincidence, I wore a black glove to the American Music Awards ceremony,
which happened to fall on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Funny how
things happen sometimes.
I admit that I love starting trends, but I never thought wearing white socks
was going to catch on. Not too long ago it was considered extremely square
to wear white socks. It was cool in the 1950s, but in the ¦60s and ¦70s you
wouldn't be caught dead in white socks. It was too square to even consider -
for most people.
But I never stopped wearing them. Ever. My brothers would call me a dip, but
I didn't care. My brother Jermaine would get upset and call my mother,
"Mother, Michael's wearing his white socks again. Can't you do something?
Talk to him." He would complain bitterly. They'd all tell me I was a
goofball. But I still wore my white socks, and now it's cool again. Those
white socks must have caught on just to spite Jermaine. I get tickled when I
think about it. After Thriller came out, it even became okay to wear your
pants high around your ankles again.
My attitude is if fashion says it's forbidden, I'm going to do it.
When I'm at home, I don't like to dress up. I wear anything that's handy. I
used to spend days in my pyjamas. I like flannel shirts, old sweaters and
slacks, simple clothes.
When I go out, I dress up in sharper, brighter, more tailored clothes, but
around the house and in the studio anything goes. I don't wear much
jewellery - usually none - because it gets in my way. Occasionally people
give me gifts of jewellery and I treasure them for the sentiment, but
usually I just put them away somewhere. Some of it has been stolen. Jackie
Gleason gave me a beautiful ring. He took it off his finger and gave it to
me. It was stolen and I miss it, but it doesn't really bother me because the
gesture meant more than anything else, and that can't be taken from me. The
ring was just a material thing.
What really makes me happy, what I love is performing and creating. I really
don't care about all the material trappings. I love to put my soul into
something and have people accept it and like it. That's a wonderful feeling.
I appreciate art for that reason. I'm a great admirer of Michelangelo and of
how he poured his soul into his work. He knew in his heart that one day he
would die, but that the work he did would live on. You can tell he painted
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with all his soul. At one point he even
destroyed it and did it over because he wanted it to be perfect. He said,
"If the wine is sour, pour it out."
I can look at a painting and lose myself. It pulls you in, all the pathos
and drama. It communicates with you. You can sense what the artist was
feeling. I feel the same way about photography. A poignant or strong
photograph can speak volumes.
As I said earlier, there were many changes in my life in the aftermath of
Motown 25 . We were told that forty-seven million people watched that show,
and apparently many of them went out and bought Thriller . By the fall of
1983 the album had sold eight million copies, eclipsing, by far, CBS's
expectations for the successor to Off the Wall . At that point Frank Dileo
said he'd like to see us produce another video or short film.
It was clear to us that the next single and video should be "Thriller," a
long track that had plenty of material for a brilliant director to play
with. As soon as the decision was made, I knew who I wanted to have direct
it. The year before I had seen a horror film called An American Werewolf in
London , and I knew that the man who made it, John Landis, would be perfect
for "Thriller," since our concept for the video featured the same kind of
transformations that happened to his character.
So we contacted John Landis and asked him to direct. He agreed and submitted
his budget, and we went to work. The technical details of this film were so
awesome that I soon got a call from John Branca, my attorney and one of my
closest and most valued advisers. John had been working with me ever since
the Off the Wall days; in fact he even helped me out by donning many hats
and functioning in several capacities when I had no manager after Thriller
was released. He's one of those extremely talented, capable men who can do
anything. Anyway, John was in a panic because it had become obvious to him
that the original budget for the "Thriller" video was going to double. I was
paying for this project myself, so the money for the budget overruns was
coming out of my pocket.
But at this point John came up with a great idea. He suggested we make a
separate video, financed by somebody else, about the making of the
"Thriller" video. It seemed odd that no one had ever done this before. We
felt sure it would be an interesting documentary, and at the same time it
would help pay for our doubled project. It didn't take John long to put this
deal together. He got MTV and the Showtime cable network to put up the cash,
and Vestron released the video after "Thriller" aired.
The success of The Making of Thriller was a bit of a shock to all of us. In
its cassette form it sold about a million copies by itself. Even now, it
holds the record as the best-selling music video of all time.
The "Thriller" film was ready in late 1983. We released it in February and
it made its debut on MTV. Epic released "Thriller" as a single and sales of
the album went crazy. According to statistics, the "Thriller" film and the
release of the single resulted in fourteen million additional album and tape
sales within a six-month period. At one point in 1984, we were selling a
million records a week.
I'm still stunned by this response. By the time we finally closed down the
Thriller campaign a year later, the album was at the thirty-two million
mark. Today sales are at forty million. A dream come true.
During this period I changed my management as well. My contract with Weisner
and DeMann had expired in early 1983. My father was no longer representing
me and I was looking at various people. One day I was at the Beverly Hills
Hotel, visiting Frank Dileo, and I asked him if he had any interest in
leaving Epic and managing my career.
Frank asked me to think about it some more and if I was certain to call him
back on Friday.
Needless to say, I called him back.
The success of Thriller really hit me in 1984, when the album received a
gratifying number of nominations for the American Music Awards and the
Grammy Awards. I remember feeling an overwhelming rush of jubilation. I was
whooping with joy and dancing around the house, screaming. When the album
was certified as the best-selling album of all time, I couldn't believe it.
Quincy Jones was yelling, "Bust open the champagne!" We were all in a state.
Man! What a feeling! To work so hard on something, to give so much and to
succeed! Everyone involved with Thriller was floating on air. It was
I imagined that I felt like a long-distance runner must feel when breaking
the tape at the finish line. I would think of an athlete, running as hard
and as fast as he can. Finally he gets close to the finish line and his
chest hits that ribbon and the crowd is soaring with him. And I'm not even
But I identify with that person because I know how hard he's trained and I
know how much that moment means to him. Perhaps a whole life has been
devoted to this endeavour, this one moment. And then he wins. That's the
realisation of a dream. That's powerful stuff. I can share that feeling
because I know.
One of the side effects of the Thriller period was to make me weary of
constantly being in the public eye. Because of this, I resolved to lead a
quieter, more private life. I was still quite shy about my appearance. You
must remember that I had been a child star and when you grow up under that
kind of scrutiny people don't want you to change, to get older and look
different. When I first became well known, I had a lot of baby fat and a
very round, chubby face. That roundness stayed with me until several years
ago when I changed my diet and stopped eating beef, chicken, pork, and fish,
as well as certain fattening foods. I just wanted to look better, live
better, and be healthier. Gradually, as I lost weight, my face took on its
present shape and the press started accusing me of surgically altering my
appearance, beyond the nose job I freely admitted I had, like many
performers and film stars. They would take an old picture from adolescence
of high school, and compare it to a current photograph. In the old picture
my face would be round and pudgy. I'd have an Afro, and the picture would be
badly lit. The new picture would show a much older, more mature face. I've
got a different hairstyle and a different nose. Also, the photographer's
lighting is excellent in the recent photographs. It's really not fair to
make such comparisons. They have said I had bone surgery done on my face. It
seems strange to me that people would jump to that conclusion and I thought
it was very unfair.
Judy Garland and Jean Harlow and many others have had their noses done. My
problem is that as a child star people got used to seeing me look one way.
I'd like to set the record straight right now. I have never had my cheeks
altered or my eyes altered. I have not had my lips thinned, nor have I had
dermabrasion or a skin peel. All of these charges are ridiculous. If they
were true, I would say so, but they aren't. I have had my nose altered twice
and I recently added a cleft to my chin, but that is it. Period. I don't
care what anyone else says - it's my face and I know.
I'm a vegetarian now and I'm so much thinner. I've been on a strict diet for
years . I feel better than I ever have, healthier and more energetic. I
don't understand why the press is so interested in speculating about my
appearance anyway. What does my face have to do with my music or my dancing?
The other day a man asked me if I was happy. And I answered, "I don't think
I'm ever totally happy." I'm one of the hardest people to satisfy, but at
the same time, I'm aware of how much I have to be thankful for and I am
truly appreciative that I have my health and the love of my family and
I'm also easily embarrassed. The night I won eight American Music Awards, I
accepted them wearing my shades on the network broadcast. Katharine Hepburn
called me up and congratulated me, but she gave me a hard time because of
the sunglasses. "Your fans want to see your eyes," she scolded me. "You're
cheating them." The following month, February 1984, at the Grammy show,
Thriller had walked off with seven Grammy Awards and looked like it was
going to win as eighth. All evening I had been going up to the podium and
collecting awards with my sunglasses on. Finally, when Thriller won for Best
Album, I went up to accept it, took off my glasses, and stared into the
camera. "Katherine Hepburn," I said, "this is for you." I knew she was
watching and she was.
You have to have some fun.
Chapter Six - All You Need Is Love
I had planned to spend most of 1984 working on some movie ideas I had, but
those plans got sidetracked. First, in January, I was burned on the set of a
Pepsi commercial I was shooting with my brothers.
The reason for the fire was stupidity, pure and simple. We were shooting at
night and I was supposed to come down a staircase with magnesium flash bombs
going off on either side of me and just behind me. It seemed so simple. I
was to walk down the stairs and these bombs would blow up behind me. We did
several takes that were wonderfully timed. The lightning effects from the
bombs were great. Only later did I find out that these bombs were only two
feet away from either side of my head, which was a total disregard of the
safety regulations. I was supposed to stand in the middle of a magnesium
explosion, two feet on either side.
Then Bob Giraldi, the director, came to me and said, "Michael, you're going
down too early. We want to see you up there, up on the stairs. When the
lights come on, we want to reveal that you're there, so wait ."
So I waited, the bombs went off on either side of my head, and the sparks
set my hair on fire. I was dancing down this ramp and turning around,
spinning, not knowing I was on fire. Suddenly I felt my hands reflexively
going to my head in an attempt to smother the flames. I fell down and just
tried to shake the flames out. Jermaine turned around and saw me on the
ground, just after the explosions had gone off, and he thought I had been
shot by someone in the crowd - because we were shooting in front of a big
audience. That's what it looked like to him.
Miko Brando, who works for me, was the first person to reach me. After that,
it was chaos. It was crazy. No film could properly capture the drama of what
went on that night. The crowd was screaming. Someone shouted, "Get some
ice!" There were frantic running sounds. People were yelling, "Oh no!" The
emergency truck came up and before they put in I saw the Pepsi executives
huddled together in a corner, looking terrified. I remember the medical
people putting me on a cot and the guys from Pepsi were so scared they
couldn't even bring themselves to check on me.
Meanwhile, I was kind of detached, despite the terrible pain. I was watching
all the drama unfold. Later they told me I was in shock, but I remember
enjoying the ride to the hospital because I never thought I'd ride in an
ambulance with the sirens wailing. It was one of those things I had always
wanted to do when I was growing up. When we got there, they told me there
were news crews outside, so I asked for my glove. There's a famous shot of
me waving from the stretcher with my glove on.
Later one on the doctors told me that it was a miracle I was alive. One of
the firemen had mentioned that in most cases your clothes catch on fire, in
which case your whole face can be disfigured or you can die. That's it. I
had third-degree burns on the back of my head that almost went through to my
skull, so I had a lot of problems with it, but I was very lucky.
What we now know is that the incident created a lot of publicity for the
commercial. They sold more Pepsi than ever before. And they came back to me
later and offered me the biggest commercial endorsement fee in history. It
was so unprecedented that it went into The Guinness Book of World Records.
Pepsi and I worked together on another commercial, called "The Kid," and I
gave them problems by limiting the shots of me because I felt the shots they
were asking for didn't work well. Later, when the commercial was a success,
they told me I had been right.
I still remember how scared those Pepsi executives looked the night of the
fire. They thought that my getting burned would leave a bad taste in the
mouth of every every kid in America who drank Pepsi. They knew I could have
sued them and I could have, but I was real nice about it. Real nice. They
gave me $1,500,000 which I immediately donated to the Michael Jackson Burn
Center. I wanted to do something because I was so moved by the other burn
patients I met while I was in the hospital.
Then there was the Victory tour. I did fifty-five shows with my brothers
over the course of five months.
I didn't want to go on the Victory tour and I fought against it. I felt the
wisest thing for me would be not to do the tour, but my brothers wanted to
do it and I did it for them. So I told myself that since I was committed to
doing this, I might as well put my soul into it.
When it came down to the actual tour, I was outvoted on a number of issues,
but you don't think when you're onstage, you just deliver. My goal for the
Victory tour was to give each performance everything I could. I hoped people
might come to see me who didn't even like me. I hoped they might hear about
the show and want to see what's going on. I wanted incredible word-of-mouth
response to the show so a wide range of people would come and see us. Word
of mouth is the best publicity. Nothing beats it. If someone I trust comes
to me and tells me something is great, I'm sold.
I felt very powerful in those days of Victory. I felt on top of the world. I
felt determined. That tour was like: "We're a mountain. We've come to share
our music with you. We have something we want to tell you." At the beginning
of the show, we rose out of the stage and came down these stairs. The
opening was dramatic and bright and captured the whole feeling of the show.
When the lights came on and they saw us, the roof would come off the place.
It was a nice feeling, playing with my brothers again. It gave us a chance
to relive our days as the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons. We were all together
again. Jermaine had come back and we were riding a wave of popularity. It
was the biggest tour any group had ever done, in huge outdoor stadiums. But
I was disappointed with the tour from the beginning. I had wanted to move
the world like it had never been moved. I wanted to present something that
would make people say, "Wow! That's wonderful!" The response we got was
wonderful and the fans were great, but I became unhappy with our show. I
didn't have the time or the opportunity to perfect it the way I wanted to. I
was disappointed in the staging of "Billie Jean." I wanted it to be so much
more than it was. I didn't like the lighting and I never got my steps quite
the way I wanted them. It killed me to have to accept these things and
settle for doing it the way I did.
There've been times right before a show when certain things were bothering
me - business or personal problems. I would think, "I don't know how to go
through with this. I don't know how I'm going to get through the show. I
can't perform like this."
But once I get to the side of the stage, something happens. The rhythm
starts and the lights hit me and the problems disappear. This has happened
so many times. The thrill of performing just takes me over. It's like God
saying, "Yes, you can. Yes, you can. Just wait. Wait till you hear this.
Wait till you see this." And the backbeat gets in my backbone and it
vibrates and it just takes me. Sometimes I almost lose control and the
musicians say, "What is he doing?" and they start following me. You change
the whole schedule of a piece. You stop and you just take over from scratch
and do a whole other thing. The song takes you in another direction.
There was a part of the show on the Victory tour where I was doing this
scatting theme and the audience was repeating what I said. I'd say, "Da, de,
da, de" and they'd say, "Da, de, da, de." There've been times when I've done
that and they would start stomping. And when the whole audience is doing
that, it sounds like an earthquake. Oh! It's a great feeling to be able to
do that with all those people - whole stadiums - and they're all doing the
same thing you're doing. It's the greatest feeling in the world. You look
out in the audience and see toddlers and teens and grandparents and people
in their twenties and thirties. Everybody is swaying, their hands are up,
and they're all singing. You ask that the house lights come on and you see
their faces and you say, "Hold hands" and they hold hands and you say,
"Stand up" or "Clap" and they do. They're enjoying themselves and they'll
whatever you tell them. They love it and it's so beautiful - all the races
of people are together doing this. At times like that I say, "Look around
you. Look at yourselves. Look. Look around you. Look at what you have done."
Oh, it's so beautiful. Very powerful. Those are great moments.
The Victory tour was my first chance to be exposed to the Michael Jackson
fans since Thriller had come out two years earlier. There were some strange
reactions. I'd bump into people in hallways and they'd go, "Naw, that can't
be him. He wouldn't be here." I was baffled and I'd ask myself, "Why
wouldn't I? I'm on earth somewhere . I've got to be somewhere at any given
time. Why not here?" Some fans imagine you to be almost an illusion, this
thing that doesn't exist. When they see you, they feel it's a miracle or
something. I've had fans ask me if I use the bathroom. I mean, it gets
embarrassing. They just lose touch with the fact that you're like them
because they get so excited. But I can understand it because I'd feel the
same way if, for instance, I could have met Walt Disney or Charlie Chaplin.
Kansas City opened the tour. It was Victory's first night. We were walking
by the hotel pool in the evening and Frank Dileo lost his balance and fell
in. People saw this and started to get excited. Some of us were kind of
embarrassed, but I was laughing. He wasn't hurt and he looked so surprised.
We jumped over a low wall and found ourselves on the street without any
security. People didn't seem to be able to believe that we were just walking
around on the street like that. They gave us a wide berth.
Later when we returned to the hotel, Bill Bray, who has headed my security
team since I was a child, just shook his head and laughed as we recounted
Bill is very careful and immensely professional in his job, but he doesn't
worry about things after the fact. He travels with me everywhere and
occasionally he's my only companion on short trips. I can't imagine life
without Bill; he's warm and funny and absolutely in love with life. He's a
When the tour was in Washington, D.C., I was out on our hotel balcony with
Frank, who has a great sense of humour and enjoys playing pranks himself. We
were teasing one another and I started pulling $100 bills from his pockets
and throwing them to people who were walking down below. This almost caused
a riot. He was trying to stop me, but we were both laughing. It reminded me
of the pranks my brothers and I used to pull on tour. Frank sent our
security people downstairs to try and find any undiscovered money in the
In Jacksonville, the local police almost killed us in a traffic accident
during the four-block drive from the hotel to the stadium. Later, in another
part of Florida, when the old tour boredom set in that I described earlier,
I played a little trick on Frank. I asked him to come up to my suite and
when he came in I offered him some watermelon, which was lying on a table
across the room. Frank went over to pick up a piece and tripped over my boa
constrictor, Muscles, who was on the road with me. Muscles is harmless, but
Frank hates snakes and proceeded to scream and yell. I started chasing him
around the room with the boa. Frank got the upper hand, however. He
panicked, ran from the room, and grabbed the security guard's gun. He was
going to shoot Muscles, but the guard calmed him down. Later he said all he
could think of was: "I've got to get that snake." I've found that a lot of
tough men are afraid of snakes.
We were locked in hotels all over America, just like in the old days. Me and
Jermaine or me and Randy would get up to our old tricks, taking buckets of
water and pouring them off hotel balconies onto people eating in the atriums
far below. We were up so high the water was just mist by the time it reached
them. It was just like the old days, bored in the hotels, locked away from
fans for our own protection, unable to go anywhere without massive security.
But there were a lot of days that were fun too. We had a lot of time off on
that tour and we got to take five little vacations to Disney World. Once,
when we were staying in the hotel there, an amazing thing happened. I'll
never forget it. I was on a balcony where we could see a big area. There
were all these people. It was so crowded that people were bumping into each
other. Someone in that crowd recognised me and started screaming my name.
Thousands of people began chanting, "Michael! Michael!" and it was echoing
all over the park. The chanting continued until finally it was so loud that
if I hadn't acknowledged it, it would have been rude. As soon as I did,
everybody started screaming. I said, "Oh, this is so beautiful. I've got it
so good." All the work I'd put in on Thriller , my crying and believing in
my dreams and working on those songs and falling asleep near the microphone
stand because I was so tired, all of it was repaid by this display of
I've seen times where I'd walk into a theatre to see a play and everybody
would just start applauding. Just because they're glad that I happen to be