*Of course, it’s all selfish stuff. Things I (the “I” leaning hard in italics) think he should have done. That’s how we all can be with artists and famous people. Because we support them, we think we know what they should be doing.
For example, we insist they reunite with former collaborators, no matter how the entertainers themselves feel about it. Would it absolutely kill Jody Watley to get back with Shalamar? Forget that we’ve got relatives we haven’t communicated with in years.
We think it important that we grow emotionally, spiritually and professionally. Yet we want our favorite entertainers to keep doing what they’ve been doing for years.
We’re not perfect, but we refuse to accept the flaws of those humans characterized by the fact that they sing our favorite song. And we want them to live forever, when some of them simply want to lie down and die.
I’ve tried not to be that kind of a music lover. But on August 29th Michael Jackson would have been fifty-three. That Jackson’s not here makes me ponder things I’d have loved to have seen him do. I mean, if he wanted to.
I wish Michael could have been persuaded to record some straight-ahead, stripped-down R&B.
Just once, towards the end, I wish he’d have aborted the garish sound effects and the choir and the obligatory rap at the bridge and the guest rock star guitar solo and returned to his pop/soul roots by recording a warm and wonderful rhythm section-driven collection of songs not unlike the version of Smokey Robinson’s bluesy “Who’s Loving You” he sang the hell out of when he was just a cherub-faced child–a stunning performance that Motown founder Berry Gordy teases Smokey about to this day (“Smoke, you let a little boy just UP and TAKE your own song away from you.”).
Such a recording would have been right up Michael’s alley. He loved ’70s soul. He listened to Al Green and Philly International and dug Mavis Staples’ (of the Staples Singers) gospel-tinged grunts, groans and her “Cha’moan.”
Michael didn’t only appreciate the music, but the artists themselves. Isaac Hayes told me that during his red hot “Black Moses” period in the ’70s (during which he covered the Jackson 5 hit, “Never Can Say Good-bye”), whenever he was in Los Angeles he’d visit the Jackson family home in Encino and that era soul stars like Betty Wright and the Chi-lites’ Marshall Thompson would fall through, too.
Michael was such a Marvin Gaye fan in the late ’70s, that whenever Gaye and the Jacksons were performing in the same city, Michael would seek out the legendary crooner, visiting him either backstage or at his hotel.
By 1978, Michael had been listening to so much of Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and “Let’s Get It On” albums that during both the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” (particularly Jackson’s cool phrasing and projected aloofness during the song’s opening lyric, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen to you baby”)and the falsetto inflections during “Off The Wall”‘s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Gaye’s influence on Michael was obvious.
It was more than mere serendipity that nearly two decades later, while recording “Invincible,” his last album, Michael would be the first artist to record at the then newly restored historic Marvin Gaye studio, re-christened Marvin’s Room. Jackson and his children Prince, Paris and Blanket moved into the Sunset Blvd. facility’s cozy, luxurious secret upstairs apartment where, unbeknownst to the rest of the businesses on the block, they lived for weeks right there in the heart of bustling Hollywood while Michael recorded tracks for the album.
Michael would have recorded an original soul record in a New York minute if he thought it would have sold. Of course, convincing him of that fact would have been World War III. Forever pitching a Big Tent, Michael would have had to believe such a CD would have sold millions. And were it a sincere and authentic recording, it would have.
But I also wished Michael would have lived to record a “live” production in front of an orchestra, the way such singers as Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra used to do it.
Unlike most music productions today, where the music track is recorded first and the vocalist comes in later to sing the leads, doing take after take until their performance is perfect, orchestra recordings were/are usually cut with the vocalists and musicians in the studio performing together, as if it were a concert.
I actually witnessed this time-honored, nerve-racking method of recording, in 2003 when legends songwriter/producer Burt Bacharach and singer Ron Isley teamed at Hollywood’s renown Capitol Records Recording Studios to make “Here I am: Bacharach Meets Isley,” a collection of reworked Bacharach-Hal David classics.
Bacharach, conducting the session from the piano, planned for Isley and the orchestra to perform each song once during a warm-up pass–when you’re a top-notched session player, a “rehearsal” is playing music you’re seeing for the first time as you read it from the charts–and then immediately perform it again while being recorded. Wisely, engineer Allen Zentz had been recording both the run-thru and official takes. Bacharach would listen to the playback of a warm up and say, “Let’s just keep that one and go on to the next song.”
I knew Isley, whose dream it was to make a recording in this classic fashion, had never worked with a full orchestra, let alone record under this one-take pressure. During a short break, I stuck my head in the vocal booth and asked him if he was nervous. Standing behind the mic, headphones hanging around his neck, Isley, cool as a cucumber, simply smiled and said, “This is where the 40 years [of professional singing] comes in.”
I feel like Michael, whether singing revitalized pop standards, jazz tunes or selections from the Great American Songbook, would have killed in front of an orchestra. The closest he came to the concept was his briefly entertaining the idea of flying to London and recording Beatles songs (selected from the titles he owned) with the London Symphony Orchestra. Instead, he ended up making “Invincible,” a recording that ultimately sold some 13 million copies worldwide, but which hardly challenged Michael as an artist.
However, the thing I most wish Michael Jackson had lived to do was find genuine and sustained personal happiness. Being a parent seemed to bring him the most joy he’d seen since the days of “Thriller.” Once the “This Is It” shows were behind him, I’m convinced Jackson would have again retreated from the public glare, in dynamic and desperate pursuit of normalcy –whatever that might have been to a guy like Michael Jackson.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].