It was a dance move that Michael Jackson was known for, something that he’d always done, and something he was always expected to do. It's always been one of those things that I considered to be "no big deal".
For years, I had no idea what the moonwalk meant to pop culture or that there was even a debut performance of it. Growing up in a household where Michael Jackson music and watching videotapes like Moonwalker and The Legend Continues is the norm, you kinda just take things for what they are.
My fandom started long before Youtube. But, that was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it would have been awesome to have the resources that are available now. If I could see thousands of hours of MJ footage I would have probably been in Michael Jackson fan heaven. But, then again, isn't it human nature to appreciate things that aren't readily available? I think that was part of the appeal for me. I deeply valued the process of searching and discovering websites like Jetzi’s Michael Jackson Video. The internet, even before social media, was a treasure trove of performances and footage that I never knew existed.
I also loved watching my HIStory On Film Volume II DVD.
That's where I saw Michael's entire, uninterrupted Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean” for the first time. But I also clearly remember telling my father how annoying it was to have the Motown 25 performance of "Billie Jean" on there, instead of the short film.
It seemed like nothing special to me.
“Nothing special?” my dad repeated my words back to me.
“No, that performance IS SPECIAL” he corrected me sternly.
“That's Motown 25. THAT’S WHAT STARTED IT ALL”.
On the 34-year anniversary of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, I want to share with you the things I learned about Michael’s performance on Motown 25, why the television special was so iconic, and other things I think all fans should know about it.
1. The Significance of Motown Records.
If you’re anything like the fan that I was years ago, you may not know much about Motown. In order to understand the significance and impact of the Motown 25 television special, you have to know what Motown Records meant (and still means) both to pop culture and black music history. Motown Records was one of the first black-owned labels that achieved crossover success on the radio and Billboard Charts.
|Hitsville- the Home of Motown Records|
It was a small record label, based out of Detroit and founded by Berry Gordy in 1958. But, it’s success is indisputable.
Motown birthed acts like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder (all pictured above)...
and the Jackson Five.
Others like Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and the song-writing and production team, Ashford & Simpson.
With almost 80 records in the Top 10 of the Billboard 100 between 1960 and 1969, and a unique sound, Motown’s acts and music were popular among both black and white audiences. Suzanne de Passe said it best-- “Motown wasn’t just pioneering a sound, but a cultural dynamic”.
And the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was a celebration, of just that.
2. Michael Didn’t Want To Do It.
Believe it or not, Michael initially didn’t want to do the show.
Michael Jackson, at his own admission, wasn’t a big fan of television as it related to his music career.
In his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael shares more about how he made the decision to actually appear on the show.
“I said no to the idea at first... I thought about how much Berry Gordy had done for me and the group, but I told my managers and Motown that I didn’t want to go on TV. My whole attitude towards TV is fairly negative”.
After speaking to Berry Gordy, who visited Michael at a studio session to discuss it, Michael decided he would appear and perform with his brothers, including Jermaine. The only stipulation? That he would get his own solo spot and do “Billie Jean”. It would be the only “non-Motown” song of the show.
Of course, he performed with his brothers first, a Jacksons medley, including Jermaine (and Randy too!).
Here's a rare photo of the Jacksons from the rehearsal:
It was the first time the original members of the Jackson 5 appeared together since 1975.
3. Studio Audience Only.
Did you know that the performance of “Billie Jean” was almost not broadcast? According to Suzanne de Passe, who was the executive producer for the show (and the creative assistant to Berry Gordy at Motown for many years), Michael asked for it not to be included in the show. Here’s an excerpt of her interview with EBONY magazine in 2014:
EBONY: Of course, Michael Jackson performing “Billie Jean” and doing the moonwalk for the first time became the highlight of the show.
SP: A letter came by messenger during rehearsals saying we were forbidden to tape “Billie Jean.” The reason was that Michael wanted to do it for the people in the theater, but he didn’t want it on the broadcast. I went to Michael, and said, “Are you serious? I’ll tell you what, we will tape it and you come to the editing room. And, if you don’ t like it, we won’ t use it.” Luckily he not only liked it, he loved it. His manager later told me that performance helped sell four million more copies of Thriller.
(Source: Suzanne de Passe Looks Back on ‘ Motown 25’ , Ebony Magazine. 2014)
|Michael and Suzanne de Passe.|
Well, I’m grateful that we, and the 47 million viewers across America watching live that evening, got to see it.
Watch the full performance of Michael Jackson and the Jacksons on Motown 25 here.
4. The Biggest Compliment Michael’s ever received
Michael Jackson was a perfectionist.
He wasn’t totally happy with his performance that night. His brothers stood at the wings of the stage watching, amazed and proud at how well he had done. But, Michael felt conflicted.
“But I just remember opening my eyes at the end of the thing and seeing this sea of people standing up, applauding. And I felt so many conflicting emotions. I knew I had done my best and felt good, so good. But at the same time I felt disappointed in myself. I had planned to do one really long spin and to stop on my toes, suspended for a moment, but I didn’t stay on my toes as long as I wanted, I did the spin and I landed on one toe. I wanted to just stay there, just freeze there, but it didn’t work quite as I’d planned.” – Michael Jackson, Moonwalk
I remember first reading that and feeling bad that Michael was disappointed in his performance. The entire world loved it! But, to me, the beauty of Michael Jackson in part, is his perfectionism. It’s something that made him unique among many of his peers and contributed to him being so accomplished.
The day after Motown 25, the legendary Fred Aistaire called him and complimented him, “You’re A Hell Of A Mover”. Michael said that it was the greatest compliment he had ever received in his life.
After that performance, he met with Aistaire, Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan, at separate times, trading dance moves. Michael, of course, taught them the moonwalk.
Michael on meeting with the dance greats:
“It was a fantastic experience that show, because I felt that I had been inducted into an informal fraternity of dancers, and I felt so honored because these were the people I most admired in the world”.
5. An Emmy Nomination
It’s a fact that Michael has won many awards throughout his career. But, most of them were for his music. Did you know that he was nominated for an Emmy award? His nomination in 1983 was for his performance of “Billie Jean" on the Motown 25 special. He went up against other nominees like comedian Richard Pryor (for his performance as the host of Motown 25), Carol Burnett, and Luciano Pavarotti. Michael didn’t win Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program that year,
* (The winner was Leontyne Price in Live From Lincoln Center).
Millions of people who had never seen Michael Jackson perform as an adult solo artist were exposed to his talents. Michael had the forethought to use the opportunity presented to him in a remarkable way.
He knew how best to use a concept that he was less than thrilled about (television) and use it to his advantage.
“I’m forced to admit I had to be talked into doing it. I’m glad I did because the show eventually produced some of the happiest and proudest moments of my life”. - Michael Jackson
I’m glad he did it too. :)