Analyzing Michael Jackson: The genius behind the music
September 27, 2010|By Howard Reich | Arts critic
Was Michael Jackson a genius?
No doubt about it, according to experts who convened over the weekend at the Harold Washington Library Center to explore the topic.
For more than three uninterrupted hours, the Jackson aficionados played audio tracks, showed video, traded anecdotes and otherwise analyzed one of the most prolific careers in American music – albeit one cut short by the singer-songwriter's tragic death last year, at age 50.
With a throng of Jackson admirers queuing up an hour in advance on Friday night, the connoisseurs were preaching to the choir – and they did not shy away from the "g" word.
"He IS a genius," proclaimed reissues producer Harry Weinger, refusing to revert to past tense.
By way of proof, Weinger played tracks from early Jackson recordings – many still unreleased – drawing from Weinger's work on forthcoming Motown and Jackson 5 catalog reissues. In one excerpt after another, listeners heard Jackson as a child, singing with remarkable prodigiousness.
The most shattering cut was an a cappella version of "Never Can Say Goodbye," a pre-teen Jackson phrasing like a master. Without the benefits of instrumental or rhythmic support, Jackson easily keeps time, but he also finds ways to stretch it. He unerringly holds his pitch, until he decides to bend it, for expressive purposes.
The yearning intensity of Jackson's tone, the disarming "oohs" and "aahs" he improvises at key moments in the song, the silvery clarity of his high-pitched voice simply defy rational explanation. No one under 12 can sing with such craft, ardor and musical wisdom without the benefit of extraordinary gifts.
Jackson's talents, of course, eventually made him an object of adoration around the globe, the crushing attention perhaps explaining some idiosyncracies of his personality.
"The guy was painfully shy," said keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, who recorded and toured prolifically with Jackson.
"You may wonder, 'How could he be so shy?'" asked Phillinganes, pointing to a performer who appeared fearless on stage.
"If you were chased (by fans), and you had to run for your life, if that's what you experience from 11, you would be a little different, too."
The real Michael Jackson, explained Phillinganes, was the man who stood before the microphone – particularly in the recording studio – and let all that glorious music flow out of him, without qualm or inhibition.
When Jackson was recording "She's Out of My Life," with Phillinganes on keyboard, they kept reworking and refining the performance, the pianist remembered.
"And at the end of every take, he'd cry," said Phillinganes. "And it was real."
All the panelists in the symposium, which was organized by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, concurred that Jackson was thoroughly "hands-on" in recording sessions.
Though he didn't play instruments – with the exception of a rare turn on drums – he routinely "would sing percussion parts and bass lines" and other musical details, recalled singer Siedah Garrett, who wrote "Man in the Mirror" with Jackson and duetted with him on the single "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."
Yet for all Jackson's involvement with musical and production aspects of his recordings, he often would playfully wreak havoc in the midst of sessions.
"Michael would make it his business to make other artists mess up," recalled Garrett, with a laugh. "He would sing his part. Then when I would sing my part, he would throw peanuts or something at me.
"And Q (producer Quincy Jones) would say (to Garrett), 'You're wasting studio time!' "
The cumulative effect of all these insider recollections and newly unearthed recordings proved quite moving, especially to those in the audience who already revered Jackson.
"You gave me the soundtrack to my life," one observer told those on the stage, a lineup that included Jackson drummer Ricky Lawson and former record executive Ed Eckstein.
Toward the end of the evening, 79-year-old Oscar Walden Jr., a Chicago TV and radio producer, got up from his seat in the crowd and, leaning on his cane, prepared to read a poem he had written for Jackson.
"I love Michael," he told the crowd, which fell to a hush.
"He was a genius."
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