Rolling Stone contributing editor Steve Knopper’s new book, MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson (in stores October 6th), is the first narrative biography to deconstruct Jackson’s inimitable dance steps, live performances, songwriting method and studio sessions in fine detail — he interviewed more than 400 people close to Jackson, his music and his family. This excerpt shows how Jackson’s now-iconic performance on the Motown 25 special took shape.
In 1983, Suzanne de Passe, still Berry Gordy’s loyal number two, had an idea to revitalize the famous but fading Motown Records. She pitched Gordy a twenty-fifth-anniversary reunion show. Profits would go to charity. Gordy liked the idea and thought he could talk most of his former stars into it. He was wrong, at least at first. Diana Ross was living a new kind of life — without Gordy. She spent her days hobnobbing with fashion designers like Halston and Calvin Klein, dining at the Four Seasons, hanging out at Studio 54, and vacationing at her new manor in Fairfield, Connecticut. Her first RCA album, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, hit the top ten, and the follow-up, Silk Electric, had gone gold, thanks in part to Michael Jackson’s heavy-breathing, finger-snapping contribution on the song “Muscles” (which Michael produced, wrote, and named after his boa constrictor). When de Passe called about Motown 25, Ross declined. But de Passe knew Ross. She went to the press, predicting Ross would show up as a “special guest star.” Ross fans became excited, and the singer realized she couldn’t back out without looking bad. So she accepted the invitation.
Stevie Wonder said okay, if he could make it back in time from a tour of Africa. Marvin Gaye was in, if Gordy asked him personally. Ross’s Lady Sings the Blues costar Richard Pryor, still the world’s hottest comedian despite his growing drug problems, agreed to emcee. And Michael Jackson … he agreed, too, but how he came to do so depends on who tells the story. According to Berry, Jackson felt overexposed on television and was inclined to sit in the audience and silently show his support. So a cowed Gordy begged him.
Motown’s Suzee Ikeda, who worked as a liaison between the Jackson 5 and their record label in the old days, tells it differently. It was ten days before the taping when Jermaine Jackson, still a Motown recording artist, began to call her repeatedly.
“Nobody’s asked my brothers to do the show!” Jermaine complained. “You’re kidding,” Ikeda said.
“Suzanne hasn’t asked them,” he responded.