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When Motown singer Bobby Taylor and executive Suzanne DePasse brought the Jackson 5 from the sleepy steel mill town of Gary, Indiana to Detroit – Berry Gordy must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. The sixties were hurtling to a raging close socially, culturally and certainly musically – with the Beatles, Hendrix and a quiet storm of soft rock just around the corner. At Motown, many of Gordy’s creative forces – particularly Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Norman Whitfield – were chomping at the bit to escape the assembly line and express their dissatisfaction with not only the label, but American politics and morals.

But here were five young, malleable minds, pre-whipped into submission by a demanding and driven father, ripe for the musical molding. Gordy assembled his finest writer/producers at the time – Deke Richards, Fonce Mizell, future superstar Freddie Perren (Tavares, Gloria Gaynor, The Sylvers) and Gordy himself, of course – and crafted, in late 1969, what was essentially the most innovative, exuberant Motown hit since ‘Dancing in the Streets’, called ‘I Want You Back’. As if the opening piano glissando and biting guitar riffs weren’t enough, next came a soaring, plaintive, almost bluesy vocal – bathed in pain and world-weariness … from a cherubic, 11-year-old boy.

Though there were earnest contributions from older brother Jermaine and limited cameos from group elder Jackie, it was Michael Jackson who carried the tremendous aspirations of a family, a city – and a venerable record label about to enter a strange vortex of prosperity and twilight – on his skinny shoulders. And damn if he didn’t pull it off: four straight number ones, two number twos, TV specials, sold out concerts. Gordy’s dream had come true and Motown was once again ‘The Sound of Young America’.

So, if the Jackson 5 were created as a backlash to psychedelia and the anti-war movement, 1500 miles away in the equally sleepy town of Ogden, Utah, the Osmonds were created as a Caucasian response to the Jackson 5. They too had a number one out of the gate, and while they may not have been a worthy pop chart rival, they certainly became the Jacksons’ multimedia equal. In the winter of 1971, the Osmond camp had a revelation – maintain the whole while creating a part. And thus, Donny Osmond was born as a solo artist.

It was in response to this that Motown decided to make one of the Jackson 5 a solo artist, and the obvious choice was Michael. Seven months after Donny Osmond’s ‘Sweet and Innocent’, ‘Got to Be There’ hit the American charts. It was sweet, sultry, and soul-satisfying – everything the J5 hits had been – only there was no Jermaine, no Jackie, nothing to get in the way of the pure, precocious talent that was Michael.

I found it poignantly coincidental that the release of “Michael Jackson – Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection” (the title refers to the words sung, with joyous abandon, at the climax of “Got to Be There”) had been in place for quite some time, thereby having nothing to do with the King of Pop’s recent passing – but rather, with his still extant global popularity and relevance.

The 3-disc “Hello World” covers 1971 to 1975, a transitional period for Motown (from Detroit to L.A., from the authoritarian to creative autonomy) and pop music in general (soft rock and acid to disco and new wave), and for Michael as well, though it was more subtle. The majority of the tracks from Got to Be There and Ben (Disc 1 of the set) utilize the assembly line production methods of Motown’s salad days – with Michael’s ratio of innocence and nuance infused seamlessly – but there are a few departures, particularly on the stunning “I Wanna Be Where You Are”, which combines the vocal urgency of Levi Stubbs with a countermelodic structure heard rarely in the label’s previous dozen years.

Change creeps ever so slowly afoot on the 1973 LP Music & Me, where we get both the adolescent throwback “With a Child’s Heart”, as well as the harder edged, funkier “Euphoria,” the latter written by Leon Ware, who also penned “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. The stylistically unfocused nature of the record – released, ironically, the same year as what was probably the Jackson 5’s most cohesive and creatively mature effort, Get it Together – contributed mightily to both its poor showing on the LP chart (#92) and not one Top 40 single. On the 1975 follow-up Forever, Michael (which shares Disc 2 with Music & Me), the cavalry comes in the form of Eddie and Brian Holland, who returned to the Motown fold after their Invictus/Hot Wax success. The brothers brought a less dense, horn and string-laden, bass-driven vibe to the LP’s one Top 40 single, “Just a Little Bit of You,” which dipped its toe into the emerging club craze and ushered in the era of Michael Jackson as dancer/artist, a persona he and his brothers (minus Jermaine, plus Randy) would take with him to Epic Records the following year.

While it is certainly nice to have the complete set of Michael’s Motown solo LPs all in one place, the real treat comes on the third disc of “Hello World”, which combines two long out-of-print reissues: Lookin’ Back to Yesterday, originally released at the dawn of the CD era in 1986, and Farewell My Summer Love, a 1984 re-mixed collection of what where then previously unreleased tracks from 1973. In 1984, Michael Jackson was, of course, on top of the musical world after Thriller, and this was a somewhat feeble attempt on the part of Motown (now clinging to a thread of relevancy with Lionel Richie and DeBarge) to cash in on that. Farewell’s track were sweet and nostalgic, but the LP stalled just inside the Top 50 and the title cut barely dented the Top 40.

Lookin Back to Yesterday, however, contains three truly transcendent moments. Two of them were discarded tunes from the Get it Together sessions: a laid back Jackson 5 take on the spirited Supremes classic “I Hear a Symphony” and Michael’s solo turn on a vastly underrated Motown gem, “Love’s Gone Bad,” which more than matches the frenetic desperation of the Chris Clark original. The third is the Jackson 5’s stellar effort on an already monumental song, Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”. The arrangement is an ominous, bluesy dirge, and Michael’s phrasing is so commanding, so knowing, that one ends up having no qualms with the fact that this is a 13-year-old chronicling a lifelong, committed relationship.

With Michael Jackson’s mortal demise and all of its evocations – good, bad and ugly, but mostly good – we are reminded that it was this gift for seeming worldly far beyond his years, and the undue pressures and expectations such an image wrought, that played no small part in his undoing. As a result, “Hello World” is both a marvelous – and melancholy – document of Jackson’s early artistic brilliance.



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