TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Released as a single (Motown 1191) on Thursday, February 17, 1972.
SONGWRITER: Jimmie Thomas.
PRODUCERS: Mel Larson, Jerry Marcellino.
BACKSTORY: “I had grown up hearing that song by Bobby Day,” record producer Jerry Marcellino recalled in the liner notes of The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 12A: 1972. “And it was a natural for little Michael Jackson.” Who else, asked Marcellino, was going to sing “Tweedlee-deedlee-dee?”
“Rockin’ Robin” was Michael’s second solo single, although he subsequently sang the song with the rest of the Jackson 5. It was the follow-up to his first solo outing, “Got To Be There,” a Top 5 success during the closing weeks of 1971. The sequel soared even higher, entering the Top 10 six weeks after release, and ultimately settling at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In rival music trade magazine Cash Box, “Rockin’ Robin” reached the top of the charts. The track was also featured on Michael’s debut solo album, Got To Be There.
As Jerry Marcellino noted, “Rockin’ Robin” was the Motown star’s take on an earlier rock ’n’ roll hit by Bobby Day, when it was known as “Rock-in’ Robin.” The song was written under the pseudonym of Jimmie (or Jimmy) Thomas by Leon René, whose Class Records released Day’s original in 1958. The previous year, Bobby had scored a modest hit with one of his own compositions, “Little Bitty Pretty One.”
Motown’s Marcellino and Mel Larson evidently liked reaching back in time: they produced an updated version of “Little Bitty Pretty One” for the Jackson 5’s album Lookin’ Through The Windows. The habit was catching: in 1972, Jermaine Jackson cut a version of “Daddy’s Home” for his debut single, reviving a song first successful 11 years earlier for Shep & the Limelites. And when time came for Jackie Jackson to step out with solo material, his debut album included an interpretation of the Miracles’ 1959 single, “Bad Girl.” Those oldies but goodies!
REMAKES: Michael Jackson’s “Rockin’ Robin” is one of more than fifty versions rendered since the original. It is hardly surprising that rock & roll revivalists Sha Na Na (and their British equivalent, Showaddywaddy) should tackle the song. It seems more unlikely that folkie Livingston Taylor, brother of James, should also try it; nevertheless, it appeared on the singer’s Life Is Good album in 1988. British musicians have been partial to the tune, too; among those who cut it were Cliff Richard, the Hollies, Lolly (a Top 10 hit in 1999) and, more recently, McFly. “Rockin’ Robin” was also a favorite elsewhere in Europe: there were versions in Danish, Finnish and Norwegian. Nordic ornithologists obviously like bird songs.
FOOTNOTE: When the Jackson 5 travelled to Britain for concerts in the fall of 1972, they were also booked for the highly prestigious Royal Variety Performance, an entertainment showcase October 30 in the presence of members of the royal family. That particular year, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother got to see Michael, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Jackie – and how else should the siblings open their set for the queen’s mother but with “Rockin’ Robin”? Meanwhile, before the show at the London Palladium, as Jermaine confides in his memoir You Are Not Alone: Michael Through A Brother’s Eyes, Marlon spotted a hole in their dressing room wall, through which they could see the toilet of the adjacent dressing room. Jermaine does not disclose the identity of the female star who was spotted using the facilities, but there were almost no distaff performers on the bill that night. The only candidate likely to be recognisable to the Jacksons was Broadway diva Carol Channing. Jermaine? Would you care to confirm?