Friday, Jun. 26, 2009

A Little Boy Takes Charge of His Family's Band, Then Leaves It Far Behind

The story starts with talent. Not the sort of talent that wins the lead in the school musical, or even the sort that wins American Idol. This is vanishing-point talent, so far to the right of the bell curve that it needs its own sheet of graph paper. It's lonely way out there — but that part of the story comes later.

So here's Don Cornelius, creator of Soul Train, taking us back to the beginning. It's the mid-1960s. Cornelius is a Chicago disc jockey and announcer at WVON, a powerhouse of the black-music scene. And he finds himself at a show where five brothers from a Gary, Ind., family are coming onstage to perform some predictable covers of songs from established groups like the Temptations. Family acts have a checkered history, talentwise, so Cornelius is ready to be underwhelmed.

And then this kid, maybe a second-grader, spins his way out of the pack of older boys and opens his mouth to sing. And the sheer weight of Michael Jackson's talent lands as unexpectedly as a cartoon safe dropping from a desert sky. "He's only 4 ft. tall," Cornelius recalls, "and you're looking at a small person who can do anything he wanted to do onstage — with his feet or his voice. To get to the level of people who can do that, you're talking about James Brown as a performer. You're talking about Aretha Franklin as a singer. Michael was like that as a kid. He did it all, within the framework of one package. Nobody else did that."

Michael Jackson wasn't one of those child stars who was driven to success by an overbearing parent, though his father Joseph Jackson was indeed overbearing to the point of violence. He wasn't a child star who briefly captured the passing fancy of Tiger Beat with a mixture of tenor and bangs. Even his fluffiest boyhood smash, "ABC," was far more sophisticated than the abundant bubblegum sugaring the Top 40 airwaves circa 1970. He wasn't boosted to stardom by the Jackson 5; the group just tried to hang on to his rocket. Jackson was a force of nature, an inevitability. All the rest is biography, what-ifs and consequences.

He was born on Aug. 29, 1958. His mother Katherine was a dedicated Jehovah's Witness with a sweet singing voice who endeavored to protect her large family from the widespread sin of the surrounding city. His father was a crane operator and decent guitar player. Together the parents fixed on the idea of a family singing group, which might keep the boys off the streets and — just maybe — give the family a ticket out of their dead end. As first conceived, the group didn't even include Michael. He was too young. But when he was about 3 years old, he started singing the stuff he heard his brothers rehearsing. Talent announced itself. From then on, he was the acknowledged star.

Joe Jackson drove his sons relentlessly. He ridiculed their shortcomings and punished them for their mistakes. He supervised daily practice sessions with a whip in his hand; he beat the kids with fists, hangers, a razor strop. None of it was necessary to motivate Michael, for the boy was a sponge when it came to developing his craft. He studied the singing of Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder. At an age when most kids are learning the basics of do-re-mi, he was self-administering an advance course in the Godfather of Soul. "I think James Brown is a genius, you know. When he was with the Famous Flames — unbelievable," Jackson once told Oprah Winfrey. "I used to watch him on the television, and I used to get angry at the cameraman because whenever he would really start to dance, they would be on a closeup, so I couldn't see his feet. I'd shout, 'Show him! Show him!' so I could watch and learn."

Joe booked his boys into Gary's dives and strip joints, where they earned token fees plus whatever the audience tossed onto the stage. Six-year-old Michael crawled along the floor scooping coins into his pockets until his pants sagged. The next step was the so-called chitlin' circuit of black nightclubs, and from there, the Jackson brothers made it to Harlem's Apollo Theater, where the group won an amateur-night competition in 1967. That same year, the Jacksons opened for Gladys Knight and the Pips, who were part of Berry Gordy's astonishing catalog of artists at Motown Records. Knight was so struck by the adorable prodigy that she urged the Motown boss to take a look.

Joe and Katherine sensed time was running short. Like countless stage parents before them, they understood that the moment to launch a child star is well before the hormones hit. As a family friend once said, "Katherine knew the only way out of Gary was through Michael ... One day she turned to me and said, 'Michael is cute now, but he won't stay that way forever. Then what do we do? They've got to get a record contract now.' "

This urgency wasn't lost on Michael, who had a grown man's sense of commerce behind his big brown eyes and cherub cheeks. Impatient, Joe took his boys to record a single at tiny Steeltown Records in Gary. Ben Brown, the label's president, recalled that the youngster was unhappy at the subsequent photo session. "Michael said the setup looked like a family portrait," Brown once told an interviewer. "He said, 'Isn't this supposed to be business?' So he set up the group the way he thought it should be and took his pose at the front, and that's the picture we used. He had some savvy. He knew even from then."

Gordy finally agreed to see the Jacksons the following year, 1968. The Motown mogul listened with a poker face to an entire set. Inside, Gordy later said, he was thinking that Michael's superhuman dancing was too mature for his piping voice, and he would need a brand of music written just for him. "We could not believe this old man in this young kid's body," said Gordy. When the music stopped, he handed Joe a contract, the brothers bounced with joy, then stepped onto Motown's conveyor belt to stardom. And what was that like? Wall-to-wall work. The house songwriters started cranking out "soul-bubblegum," as Gordy called it. The arrangers and producers and sidemen pushed the boys in search of a Jackson 5 sound. There were endless hours with the Motown fashion crew, trying on wild clothes, and more hours with the hair stylists, and still more hours with Gordy's etiquette teachers. Inside the studio, there was a name for the group handling the Jacksons: "the Corporation."

After a year in the Corporation's factory, the Jackson 5 were a finished product, released to the public with a single called "I Want You Back." The brothers traded snippets over a percolating bass and percussion line, but it was Michael's song; he owned it from the moment he soared thrillingly on a glissando to plead "Ooooh, ba-by, give me one more chance." And with that, he was forever stamped on the world's sound track. The song hit No. 1 in January 1970. Their next recording, "ABC," reached No. 1 in April — bumping "Let It Be," by a group called the Beatles. "The Love You Save" topped the charts in June, followed by "I'll Be There" in October. Of all the great Motown acts, the Jackson 5 were the first to chart four No. 1 hits in a single year. Sometimes lost in the dazzle of their debut is the fact that with "I'll Be There," Michael Jackson gave birth to a classic ballad at the age of 12. Not even Judy Garland managed that.

The price of success, as it was for Garland and other prodigies, was a lost childhood. "There was a park across the street from the Motown studio, and I can remember looking at those kids playing games," Jackson wrote in his memoir, Moon Walk. "I'd just stare at them in wonder — I couldn't imagine such freedom, such a carefree life — and I wish more than anything I had that kind of freedom, that I could walk away and be just like them."

He told Winfrey that he was a "lonely, sad" child, "having to face popularity and all that. There were times when I had great times with my brothers, pillow fights and things, but I ... used to always cry from loneliness."

Oprah: "Beginning at what age?"

Michael: "Oh, very little, 8, 9."

And even as the Jackson 5 were blazing to glory, anyone with eyes to see could predict that the group wouldn't last long. There was such an imbalance of talents — four mortals and this freakishly powerful fifth. Typical of Motown acts, the Jacksons were pressed into an ensemble, from their choreography to their lyrical trade-offs to their matched outfits. But whenever young Michael eased out of the spotlight and into formation alongside his brothers, the whole act sagged. It was like hitching a Derby winner to a farm wagon, and you could see him trying to hold himself back until, after a few bars, sanity prevailed and he would burst again to the front where he belonged.

Because he was so young, and because he made performing look so easy, and perhaps because he was a young black man in a country whose President (as we recently learned from newly released Nixon tapes) believed abortion was necessary to prevent blacks and whites from having children together, a lot of people figured Michael Jackson just happened, a force as inexplicable as music itself. Berry Gordy, a most calculating man, recognized, however, that there was nothing accidental about Jackson. "Michael's always been different," Gordy once said. "He's more intense than anybody. He's made a science out of this."

And so, even as the Jackson 5 spun off a Saturday-morning cartoon and cranked out more hits, the group's star steered himself into a solo career. His first No. 1 hit, tellingly, was a slightly creepy yet nakedly beautiful love song about a lonely boy and his best friend, a rat named Ben. This from a boy who was already filling his family's Encino, Calif., estate with pets — a boa constrictor, peacocks, parrots.

There was one challenge that neither talent nor calculation could overcome. When puberty hit, his voice dropped, he gained weight and his face broke out. "I had pimples so badly it used to make me so shy. I used not to look at myself. I'd hide my face in the dark, I wouldn't want to look in the mirror, and my father teased me and I just hated it and I cried every day," Jackson told Winfrey. He imagined he was fat and ugly. He adopted a vegetarian diet that his older brother Jermaine touted as an acne cure. It was a short step from there to his first visit to a plastic surgeon. Adolescence — the loss of that cute kid he had been, the unmoored search for a suitable way to be an adult — "messed up my whole personality," he acknowledged.

But while Jackson wrestled with an emotional transition common to child stars, he retained his artistic confidence. In 1974, as disco threatened to bury sweet-voiced boys in the music business, the Jacksons appeared on Soul Train to introduce their new single, "Dancing Machine." It was an altogether funkier Michael Jackson doing the singing. Midsong, his face went blank as he popped through a jaw-dropping dance move called the robot. It was his own invention, the product of long hours of cunning physical engineering, nothing borrowed from James Brown. The song was a smash; the robot, a sensation. And Michael Jackson was done being a prodigy and on to something bigger.

Musician Lenny Kravitz was a child when he saw the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden. "It was the first concert I'd ever seen, and they were wearing these knicker pants with boots that came up to the knees. So I would put galoshes on and dance around the living room and pretend that I was Michael Jackson," he recalls.

"If he had just done what he did as a child, he would still be the genius that he is considered today," Kravitz sums up. "Because it is not natural for a child to sing that way, to sing with that amount of depth, with that amount of emotion, with that amount of interpretation, the pitch, the purity and the feeling. The only kind of musician I can compare that to is Mozart."

But while we call these "gifts," there is a point at which the gift is just too large, talents impose themselves as burdens and barriers, and distinction shades irretrievably into alienation. Which feels to a sobbing boy like an eternity of loneliness. —With reporting by Alex Altman, Kristi Oloffson and Julie Rawe