In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Vince Aletti, backstage at Radio City Music Hall with a 16-year-old MJ in 1975.
‘I’m more concerned that I didn’t get their autographs than that I can’t read any of my notes.’
By Vince Aletti
Mon. Feb. 17, 1975
The Jackson Five (“and Family”) came to New York to put their “Special Las Vegas Show” into Radio City Music Hall for a week and I met them in a hotel room the day before it started to find out what that meant. Jackie, who has a disconcertingly high, thin voice, and, at 23, is the oldest of the brothers, told me: “A Vegas show is a show that you play in front of an audience of people who have different ages–from the fifties on down–you know, all ages. So you have to satisfy all those people: you do a little of everything to get ’em on their feet.”
“A little of everything” turned out to be: take-offs on the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Supremes, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and Sonny and Cher; ensemble tap dancing; scripted between-songs patter; “Danny Boy,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Killing Me Softly” – a medley of solos performed on stools; strobe lights; a mirrored ball; one costume change; a medley of their earliest hits (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save”) and half the songs from their latest album. They’re proud of their Vegas show, not just because of its slick, television-special professionalism, but because it means they’ve achieved a certain kind of show biz security: “Like Frank Sinatra,” according to Jackie. “He don’t have to put out a hit record, he can still go to Las Vegas and pack ’em in.” These five little rich boys are already thinking about the day the screaming stops; and when they’re too old for the color centerfolds and “Right On!” magazine, they can always fall back on the bouffant-wig and sharkskin-suit crowd in Vegas and Lake Tahoe.
But though they’re obviously concerned with their post-pin-up careers, I’m really more interested in why Jermaine has his hair straightened, where they pick up their dance steps and why they’re all wearing these awful patent-finish loafers with flat heels. And while they’re answering cover questions about producers and new albums, I take notes on their clothes (Jermaine–wide-brimmed black hat with red band, custom jeans with rhinestone studs; Marlon–a T-shirt with a Mickey and Minnie Mouse design; Michael–a dark green vested Pierre Cardin suit without the coat, cream yellow shirt, white patent shoes). Being in love with the Jackson Five means getting beyond the pin-ups–getting past an obsession with style to an appreciation of content–but it doesn’t mean putting the pin-ups aside. In this case, it means being a fan first, then a critic.
So I was much more dismayed by their apparent lack of personal flair when it comes to clothes than I was by “Danny Boy” or any of their dumb stage-dialogue routines (at least they didn’t announce their signs). And, on the other hand, more surprisingly soft, unaggressive, and warm, with Jermaine’s sometimes verging on a self-conscious stutter) than by their singing, even if it is getting better all the time. I’m torn between writing a fan letter (Dear Jermaine: Ever since a Hollywood friend told me he saw you eating all alone in an Italian restaurant . . . ) and a critical analysis. But I’m more concerned that I didn’t get their autographs than that I can’t read any of my notes on their Radio City concert.
When the Jackson Five first appeared with “I Want You Back” a little more than five years ago, their impact was stunning. Motown Records and the music business as a whole were in the midst of a serious energy crisis; everything was sounding unbearably flat and tired. The J5 took over like a tough, loud street gang–but, of course, a perfectly polite and presentable one. There was nothing else of comparable drive or energy on the radio, nothing else to scream along to, nothing else to care about. It was amusing that they were “discovered” and “presented by” Diana Ross (even more amusing when it turned out later that Gladys Knight had seen them first but wasn’t considered enough of a “name” at Motown to lend prestige to a new act) but it was more important that they were all so damn cute (had they been boys with weight problems and thick glasses, no matter how talented, they probably wouldn’t have gotten past two talent nights at the Apollo). They were the songs of a singer-turned-crane-operator with four other children and they lived in the hard steel town of Gary, Indiana and that made a good story. But no one was surprised when, several years and many gold records later they moved to Encino, California, and a house with a pool and a sunken living room.
I saw the Jackson Five on stage for the first time a year or two after “I Want You Back”–saw them from the 4th row in the orchestra of Madison Square Garden, standing on my seat with little girls climbing on the arm rests, darting through the row and clogging the aisles, screaming all the time, trying to get closer. I just stayed where I was and screamed too. They were impossibly good and they’ve remained that way: tight, sharp, seemingly effortless vocals; perfect stage costumes and dance steps at once so stylized and so natural that they were thrilling. But while their stage shows were still among the very best in the business, their recordings started getting rather limp. They put out the best Christmas album since Phil Spector’s Phillies’ package, Michael recorded three solo albums and a moving love song to a rat (“Ben”), Jermaine and Jackie each put out solo albums (Jermaine’s singing on his first was not quite as interesting as the shirtless-on-the-beach picture of him inside the cover) and I continued to collect pin-ups. About three years ago, through the Jackson Five’s music began fading back into the aural wallpaper.
But Motown acts have an amazing resiliency, and in the fall of 1973, the Jackson Five shot back with a single and an album titled “Get It Together,” produced by Hal Davis, who’d worked with them on and off since the beginning. Davis drew heavily on the techniques and material of Normal Whitefield, the producer who revitalized the Temptations, packing his arrangements with electronic squiggles, synthesizer effects, hard chunky drumming, echoed voices, wah-wah guitars, and the short of sharp-edged changes that make dancers scream. It took a while for people who always thought the Jackson Five were just kid stuff (they were never just kid stuff) to catch on, but when the album was released last year, it become one of 1974s most successful r&b records and turned a lot of heads around.
So the group’s Vegas Show at Radio City was a weirdly schizophrenic mix of new discotheque-styled material from the “GIT” turning-point album and its follow-up, “Dancing Machine,” with variety-show medleys of what people like to call “standards.” Clearly the audience, not exactly a Vegas crowd, didn’t know quite what to make of it and didn’t much care–they were there to jump and shout and you couldn’t do either (unless the shout was “Bullshit!”) to the History of Music medley, no matter how cleverly designed and executed, or the thoughtful-solos-on-stools segment. Both sections were dropped from the show following their cool reception on opening night; as Aretha Franklin discovered last year, after a much greater miscalculation (that clown outfit! Those dancers! “MacArthur Park”! oh please), Radio City is not, or not yet, Las Vegas. But the tap dancing was kept in–they were so good they might rescue tap from the outer reaches of camp all by themselves–as was a particularly bizarre routine featuring Randy, 13, who has been performing with the group as a surprisingly strong conga player, and Janet, 8, the family’s youngest girl. Performing love duets in different styles–from Sonny & Cher to Mickey & Sylvia–and dressed like nightclub entertainers (Jan in a long, backless white satin gown and a feather boa that she flaunted with startling precocity), they looked more like midgets than children, for the moment more loveable than electrifying. But the others were, as always, remarkably slick without being slimy–a rather thin line when you’re dressed in various pastel shades and have to smile a lot. The high point for them all: “I Am Love,” with a strobe-lit dancing transition from Jermaine’s slow introduction into a hard-pounding finish featuring Tito’s Motown-psychedelic guitar.
But no matter how much I love the others, it is Michael who is the group’s aesthetic focus. His stylized show-biz posing (the bends and turns arm out-stretched and sweeping the air in front of him; little self-hugs with his head thrown back) is becoming a little disturbing, at moments even grotesque for a boy who’s still a very skinny sixteen. But when he isn’t being Engelbert Huperdinck, he’s supreme and so controlled it’s almost frightening. In his hotel room, when he tells you he’s in eleventh grade, it might seem strange but it’s believable; seeing him on stage, dancing and striding confidently out to the edge (where a girl in a leopard-print cost springs up and gives him a note), you just know he had to be lying. I want to be Michael Jackson when I grow up.