Michael reconsidered

I wrote the other day that I liked the young Michael Jackson’s work with the Jackson 5 — the singles, really — but not much beyond that.

That sounds cold, but it’s true. I don’t have any of his records.

But over the next couple of days, I kept thinking: “Is that all you have to say about an American icon?”

No, it isn’t. I’d like to add that I dug Michael Jackson the entertainer.

In the early to mid- ’80s, his  videos were extraordinary. I’ll watch “Thriller” over and over.  “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” always are worth watching if they pop up on TV.

My take on it — then and now — was that Jackson simply was reviving and reimagining classic American dance. He was the next generation, following in the footsteps of great dancers I’d seen in old movies. You may not recognize their names today: Bill Robinson, Bill Bailey and Harold and Fayard Nicholas.

Jackson learned from the masters. He was trained by the Nicholas Brothers. They were astonishing. The proof is in this remarkable scene from “Stormy Weather,” the 1943 film also starring Robinson, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway.

Jackson revitalized the moonwalk, which had been done by Bailey as far back as the ’40s. The proof comes at the end of this clip from 1955:

Bill Robinson may be least familiar today. He was 65 when he made “Stormy Weather.” He died 60 years ago. Yet his drum dance in the film foreshadows Jackson’s dance on the lighted sidewalk in “Billie Jean.”

For all too brief a time, Michael Jackson was as good.

Then you’d watch the videos that followed in the late ’80s and early ’90s and you couldn’t help but think: “There he is, grabbing himself again.”

Further recommended reading:

Of all that’s been written about Jackson’s passing, nothing is as extraordinary as Lisa Marie Presley’s blog post on her MySpace page.

“He knew,” a devastated Presley writes, revealing how her former husband believed his fate would be the same as her father’s.

A close second is Robert Hilburn’s remembrance of Jackson in the Los Angeles Times.

Jackson was 11 when he met Hilburn, the paper’s former pop music critic. Hilburn writes of the contrast between what he saw then and what he saw when granted extensive access to Jackson in the early ’80s.

Jackson and Hilburn had a falling-out in 1995. After that, Hilburn was like the rest of us, watching from a distance, occasionally appalled but most often just saddened.

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9 Comments

Filed under June 2009

9 responses to “Michael reconsidered

  1. I loved his music, and his music videos were great also. “Smooth Criminal” is a must see.

  2. Nice research on the dancing. That’s a valuable addition to this week’s wave of Michael posts. Not surprising that you would think to pull this together, of course. :)

  3. jb

    This post is everything music blogging ought to be–telling us stuff we didn’t know, and helping us see (and hear ) stuff we do know in a new way. Well done.

  4. Pingback: History in the Making « The Hits Just Keep On Comin’

  5. Ohhh. . . fantastic post. Thanks for putting it together. :)

  6. bamabob

    great post! made re-think MJ myself.

  7. Oldetymer

    I’m not sure that astonishing is enough of a description of the Nicholas Bros. they went past that in the first few minutes of the video WOW!
    As far as MJ goes my Mother taught me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, say nothing so that’s what I’m going to do.

    Overall great post,Thanks

  8. This is the finest MJ post I’ve read Jeff.

    You’re Tops!

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