If Motown Records is the greatest music monarchy of the 20th century, it is there that Michael Jackson learns to reign. His extraordinary talent is nurtured and given focus and direction, first with the Jackson 5, then as a solo star. The records – “I Want You Back,” “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Got To Be There” – stand time’s test. And when Berry Gordy asks for the young man from Gary, Indiana, to help celebrate his unique, inspiring company’s 25th anniversary, Michael moonwalks into history.
- First Hit: “Got to be There”
- Biggest Hit: “Ben”
- Top Album: Ben
- Career Highlight: Moonwalking on Motown 25
- The Jackson 5 record for a local label, Steeltown, before auditioning for Motown in Detroit in the summer of ’68, and exploding onto the world stage the following year with “I Want You Back,” the first of the group’s four consecutive No. 1 hits.
- Jacksonmania is evident on the charts, in the media and on stage during 1970-71. Then it becomes obvious that Michael will embark on a solo career under Motown’s direction, while continuing to fly, literally and metaphorically, with his brothers. At twelve, he records his first solo release, “Got To Be There,” in Los Angeles in June 1971. It heads out in October.
- “Got To Be There” is a Top 5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 by year’s end, and gets to No. 1 on the Cash Box charts in January, when Motown issues Michael’s first solo album. It contains interpretations of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” soon a Top 10 success in the U.K., and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.” But the hottest track is “Rockin’ Robin,” Michael’s sparkling remake of a ’50s hit by Bobby Day. It rocks to No. 2 in April 1972, even as he and his brothers occupy the Top 10 with “Doctor My Eyes.”
- Ben, a Top 5 album, includes Michael’s solo take on the classic Motown number with which the Jackson 5 won a talent contest at Roosevelt High School in Gary in 1965: “My Girl,” a chart-topper that year for the Temptations. On his third LP, 1973’s Music & Me, Michael pays tribute to his childhood hero, Jackie Wilson, updating the R&B superstar’s 1960 hit, “Doggin’ Around.”
- Michael is, of course, still the center of gravity for the Jackson 5 as they continue to make hits and mesmerize the world. Introducing the group’s new single, “Dancing Machine” on Soul Train in 1974, Michael unveils a dance routine of his own invention, the “robot.” The nation’s TV viewers get a stunning hint of the young man’s future moves; Michael is not yet sixteen.
- In 1977, Michael lands a starring role alongside Diana Ross in the film musical, The Wiz, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. Here, he meets producer Quincy Jones; the two go on to remake the music industry landscape with 1982’s Thriller, the first-ever album to sell 30 million copies in the US, and 100 million worldwide.
- In March 1983, Michael joins his brothers to perform on the Motown 25 network TV special, recorded for broadcast (to extraordinary ratings) in May. After an exciting medley of the group’s hits, he performs a new song from Thriller, released only three months before. During the instrumental bridge of “Billie Jean,” Michael spins around, hitches up his trousers – and “moonwalks” across the stage into entertainment history.
- “As a kid, Michael was always beyond his years,” says Berry Gordy upon his protégé’s tragic passing in 2009. “He had a knowingness about him that was incredible.” He adds, “Michael was, and will remain, one of the greatest entertainers of all time.”