I don’t know where I was in 1969 when I heard the glittering piano intro to “I Want You Back” for the first time. But my life hasn’t been the same since the Jackson 5’s first television appearance on “Hollywood Palace” — contrary to most accounts of them being on “The Ed Sullivan Show” first.
Though I loved The Temptations, The Miracles and The Spinners, the Jackson 5 were my age. So I believed they understood me; and, of course, I understood them, as evidenced by their song lyrics. “Maybe tomorrow, you’ll change your mind…,” “I don’t know why I love you…” (Stevie Wonder actually wrote that one), “but, I’m sho’ nuff the one you need…”
“Right On” magazine devoted its entire premiere issue to The J-5. We black girls no longer had to rely on “Tiger Beat” — which featured David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman or Donny Osmond on its cover — for pictures of Michael and his brothers buried in the back. “Right On” was filled with full-color pages of each chocolate brown Jackson (and a couple of Sylvers) haloed in well-groomed ‘fros. Feature articles chronicled their day-to-day lives, their migration from Gary, Indiana to Encino, California, their favorite foods, hobbies and other pastimes. It said they spent most of their time rehearsing for their shows (a big thing we had in common, since I had performed in church and school programs from the time I could walk).
Every black girl at District 7 Elementary had this issue of “Right On”. During recess or milk break, we’d convene to discuss who our favorite Jackson was, and why. While most went for Michael or Jermaine, I declared Marlon as the one I fancied most, mainly to be different; and I didn’t want to share. I taped every large fold-out poster of each Jackson brother on my cinderblock bedroom wall. Then I clipped out a small black & white picture of Marlon and kept it in my bill fold. When Miss Pierce, my fifth-grade teacher caught a glimpse of it, I told her it was my boyfriend who lived ‘up the road’ in Philadelphia. “Right On” also provided a mailing address where I could write him a letter. Which I religiously did every Saturday night while wishing we were out on a date having a hamburger, fries and vanilla milkshake, comparing dance moves.
On rainy days when we couldn’t go outside for recess, Miss Pierce let us play our own 45 records and dance. Needless to say, I brought Motown (except for the Spinners, who were on Atlantic). The white girls brought the Osmonds, and the white boys brought Three Dog Night or the Beach Boys. We engaged in heated debates about whether “One Bad Apple” was a rip-off of “Mama’s Pearl,” playing sections of each song to prove our point. Fearing accusations of treason, I never confessed that I’d learned the lyrics to “One Bad Apple”, after recording it from the radio on my reel-to-reel. I wanted to pop Boogie Bullard in the mouth when he called the J-5’s mini-bikes pictured on the back of their ABC album cover “lawnmowers” just because he had a Honda CT-70. I defended them as though they were my own kin, pointing out that since they rode in planes and limos most of the time anyway, they were probably just posing with the “lawnmowers” to make a statement. The whole fifth grade class found a peaceful medium when “Rockin’ Robin” came out. I think the white kids felt it was okay to dance to it, because a white band had also recorded it.
Nine years later in a dorm room at SUNY Purchase, I was challenged to guess who was speaking the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” intro. I hadn’t heard anything from the Jackson 5 since the Destiny album, except for seeing pictures of Michael with Brooke Shields at Studio 54, which fueled rumors that they had split up. Once Michael’s first solo effort was unleashed, me and every other Jackson disciple knew we’d be swinging from a whole new kind of star. Without any assistance from his brothers, but under the precious guidance of Quincy Jones, every note of “Off the Wall” reignited the hearts of former fifth graders around the world.
By the time “Thriller” came out and sold twenty million albums, the four Jackson brothers had faded into obscurity and us ‘colored girls’ had to share Michael with every spectrum of the known universe. I could never keep up with the “Thriller” dance, but this was the age of the Walkman. So I strutted with my Crown Prince of Rhythm & Blues from the East Village to Rockefeller Center, courtesy of Aiwa stereo headphones.
Without missing a beat, the King of Pop conquered a whole new generation, as evidenced by my daughter’s heavy rotation of his “Moonwalker” VHS. Michael beckoned everyone to “take a look at yourself” with the same fervor he promised to “be there” two decades prior.
Anyone who had a pulse on June 25, 2009, the day Michael’s stopped, felt a “disturbance in the force.” Just like the death of JFK or Elvis, we all remember where we were when we heard MJ had left the building. I was surfing the web at my miserable day job at a bankruptcy law office, grasping for an inkling of peace before the next misguided soul called sobbing about their car being repossessed or not being able to pay their cable bill. While MSN’s home page stated that Michael had been rushed to the hospital after going into cardiac arrest, TMZ had to trump everybody and declare him DOA.
Each of us carries at least one invincible human around in our bosom: an untouchable being who can defy death, exist beyond time and dwell intimately in our ethers whether near or far. While oftentimes it’s a relative, stage and screen icons most readily fit into this compartment of our psyche. Without a doubt, this entertainment prodigy from the cover of “Right On” that gave us black girls bragging rights in 20th Century pop culture, and united a planet through song held space in more hearts than the number of people McDonald’s serves everyday.
As I watched vintage videos of Michael glide and croon, the void that seized me was not only for his death, but for a revelation that the love he so fervently bid me to save, had silently seeped from my soon-to-be-fifty-year old soul. I didn’t know where or how long my effortless glee had gone, but I most assuredly wanted it back. So I had to “make that change”.
© 2017 Carolyn McDonald
A previous version of this essay appears in Ms. McDonald’s book “INFLUENTIA: 50 Years on Earth as It is in Carolyn” available now on Amazon.