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.
Ikeda called Gordy and asked permission to go over de Passe’s head, to call Michael directly for a commitment. He agreed. When Ikeda and Jackson talked, old Motown friends catching up, she was careful to bring up other subjects before Motown 25. Finally, she said: “Everybody’s coming back to do this show. You’ve got to do this show,” she said. “If the Jackson 5, one of the biggest acts in the company, don’t come back to do it, it’s not going to be the same.”
“Okay,” Michael said.*
In both Jermaine’s recollection and in MJ’s autobiography Moonwalk, Michael asked for a solo performance on the spot. Ikeda says it was Gordy who suggested Michael do the song, only privately to Ikeda, without even discussing it with Michael. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ikeda told Gordy. Later, serendipitously, Michael called Ikeda and said, “Berry’s going to get mad, but I want to do something — ‘Billie Jean.'” Delighted, Ikeda strongly advised Michael not to let the regular live Motown 25 band perform the music — “because they’ll never get the groove.” Michael and Ikeda thus agreed he would lip-synch his performance to the original track. Ikeda communicated the news to Gordy, who was thrilled.
The dancing itself required no negotiation. Michael would handle everything about that himself. “Nobody else worked with him on it,” Ikeda says. “He told the director, he told everybody, how he wanted that stage, what type of lighting he wanted. He told them where to put the spotlight. ‘When I put my finger like this …’ He directed them.”
Michael often claimed he invented the routine to “Billie Jean” spontaneously, because he had spent so much time rehearsing with his brothers for the show’s Motown medley that he neglected everything else. What he did not say was how long he had been thinking about this performance.
The dance Michael chose, the backslide, was hardly new. Bill Bailey, an African-American tap-dancing star, pulled it off as early as the 1950s. Rocker David Bowie does a bit of the move in an early video for “Aladdin Sane.” Mimes used it all the time — Marcel Marceau’s famous routine “Walking in the Wind” was essentially the backslide by another name, and Robert Shields of Shields and Yarnell learned it from Marceau** himself. James Brown and Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, both influences on Michael, were among the greats who’d pulled it off. Many dancers would take credit for bestowing the backslide upon Michael Jackson — Damita Jo Freeman of Soul Train makes a credible claim, recalling that her lesson came backstage in Vegas in the late seventies. But it was two young dancers, Casper Candidate and Cooley Jaxson, who taught it to him directly.
In 1979, Casper and Cooley had appeared on Soul Train. They performed a dance called the Boogaloo, named after a street-dancing group, the Electric Boogaloos. For four minutes, dressed in black, they ignored the laws of gravity and physics, pulling off hip thrusts and acrobatic leaps set to MJ’s “Workin’ Day and Night.”
Casper and Cooley aren’t sure how their dance clip came to Michael Jackson’s attention, but they suspect he watched the show as it aired — it was his song, after all. Some of those moves, particularly the pelvic thrusts and sideways motions that make dancers’ legs look like rubber bands, had already landed in the “Beat It” video. As he was preparing for his Motown 25 performance, Michael asked one of his managers to track down the duo. Jaxson, auditioning for Sesame Street Live in San Francisco, flew to Los Angeles, where he met Candidate at a large rehearsal space. A boom box sat on the floor. Michael introduced himself. They talked for five hours. All he wanted to talk about was the backslide. “Where did it come from?” he kept asking. “Where did it start?”
They taught him the move. Unsurprisingly, MJ picked it up quickly. But he didn’t think he did. “I can’t feel it!” he kept saying.
“I understood that at the time,” Cooley recalls. “It’s more of a mime type of feel. Like you’re making a box, but you’re not making a box. If you’re doing it, it looks like you’re gliding.”
Cooley has spent much of his career giving credit to others for the backslide — Bill Bailey, James Brown, Shields and Yarnell. What frustrates him, years later, is that Jackson wasn’t similarly aggressive about giving credit to his forebears. In Moonwalk, Michael refers to the move as “a break-dance step, a ‘popping’ type of thing that black kids had created dancing on street corners in the ghetto.” “We kind of ended up being invisible,” says Cooley, now in his early fifties. “But we never said anything about it.”
The night before the taping of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, MJ rehearsed at Hayvenhurst. Katherine and La Toya were accustomed to Michael practicing every Saturday and Sunday in a room above the garage. “I’m sure he was doing the moonwalk up there, but we never knew it,” Katherine said. In the kitchen, he played “Billie Jean.” “I pretty much stood there and let the song tell me what to do,” he recalled. “I kind of let the dance create itself. I really let it talk to me; I heard the beat come in, and I took this spy’s hat and started to pose and step, letting the ‘Billie Jean’ rhythm create the movements. I felt almost compelled to let it create itself. I couldn’t help it.” Michael obviously had been thinking about 1974’s The Little Prince, in which a grown man befriends a magical young boy in a double-breasted peacoat. The great choreographer Bob Fosse shows up as a snake, modeling a half-dozen poses, gestures, and struts MJ would use for years, in the moonwalk and beyond.
Having secured the talent, de Passe and Gordy were able to make a Motown 25 deal with NBC. They booked the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on March 25, 1983. During rehearsals, thirty-eight-year-old Diana Ross showed up in a long, white mink coat, Courvoisier in hand, worrying Gordy and de Passe by declaring she had the stomach flu. But the night of the show, she emerged from her limo glamorous as ever, mugging for photographers. Because the producers wanted young, new talent in the show, they hired British MTV star Adam Ant to perform “Where Did Our Love Go?” in awkward new-wave makeup and what appeared to be a Revolutionary War costume. “Now what Adams Ant had to do with Motown, you tell me. I have no idea,” says veteran Motown singer and songwriter Valerie Simpson, upset to this day that a songwriter segment she’d hosted was cut from the program. Ant, though, was intertwined with Motown history. Gordy had once tried to sign him, which led to his spending the day with Michael Jackson and his family at their house on Hayvenhurst. Later, Michael called about the distinctive brocade jacket Ant had worn in the “Kings of the Wild Frontier” video. Ant put MJ in touch with his supplier, and the next thing he knew, Michael was wearing military jackets everywhere. Watching Michael on Motown 25, Ant’s concern was simply, “How the fuck do you follow that?” Says Ant: “It was like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, that’s what it was.”
Michael Jackson and his brothers had taken the stage for the Motown 25 taping in a conquering mood. Jackie wore a bright-green glittery open-collar shirt and black leather pants. Marlon was in a Sgt. Pepper–style topcoat; as a dancer, he had always fed off Michael, but this time he and Jackie came out as dueling dervishes. Jermaine returned to the band and provided an emotional boost. Michael, in particular, seemed moved to have him back. (None of the Jacksons had live microphones except Michael, so when Jermaine sang his bit in “I’ll Be There,” Michael walked over to share his mike with his brother, and they embraced; it was a beautiful moment of both reclaimed family unity and practiced showbiz.) It was the first time since Vegas that all the Jackson brothers were onstage together, a fact not lost on Michael, who couldn’t contain himself when his younger brother, the newest member of the family group, came bounding onstage. “Randy!” he shouted.
Michael ran through “I Want You Back,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “I’ll Be There” exactly as he’d done for fourteen straight years. The Jackson 5 had always exuded an element of contained chaos — Michael had to keep his talent from spilling onto the stage in order to preserve his role within the group. He strutted and stepped in unison with his brothers, sporadically popping in front of them, spinning and crooning. The audience, both that night at the auditorium and a month later, when the show aired on NBC, had every reason to believe this performance would be the show’s emotional peak.
Neither the viewers nor the Jackson brothers knew his costume throughout the reunion medley — black jacket covered in sequins (borrowed from his mother), silver lamé shirt, black trousers with high cuffs, white socks, Fred Astaire–style loafers, a white glove on his left hand containing 1,200 rhinestones sewn by hand, and a curly-mullet hairstyle matching the cover of Thriller — was designed not for sentimentality but action. After finishing their Motown medley, the brothers bounded offstage, proud, hugging each other, sipping generously, as always, from the crowd’s adoration. Then Michael delivered a speech by Motown 25 scriptwriter Buz Kohan. “Yeah,” Michael said, as the applause died down. “Aw. You’re beautiful.”
The moment begins to resemble the color seeping into The Wizard of Oz — out of the past, into the present. “Yeah,” Michael says again. “I have to say, those were the good old days.” He speaks in short, declaratory sentences, breathing hard. “I love those songs,” he says. “Those were magic moments. All my brothers. Including Jermaine. Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot.” Then his tone changes, and Michael looks directly into the camera — he’s Elvis Presley, aware of his power. “But especially, I like …” Somebody in the audience, a kid or a woman, audibly spoils the suspense: “Billie Jean!” Michael doesn’t care. He raises his right eyebrow. He’s staring straight ahead but not at anything, looking beyond the crowd — “… the new songs.”
Music history remembers this speech the way it remembers the throwaway lines Presley, in the studio with his band, delivered in 1954. After halting the bluegrass ballad “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” Elvis declared, “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” The resulting fast-paced version of “Milkcow” wasn’t technically the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but listening today, it feels like it. The moment echoed Benny Goodman, onstage in 1935 at Hollywood’s Palomar ballroom, initially leading his orchestra in super-slow dinner-party music. When nobody paid attention, he reversed course with Fletcher Henderson’s jumping arrangement for “King Porter Stomp.” A dance-floor riot ensued and the big-band swing era was born.
Michael reaches down for his black fedora, which resembles the bowler Bob Fosse wore in The Little Prince. His longtime assistant, Nelson P. Hayes, had placed it there while the camera had been focused elsewhere. “He must have made me rehearse that spot twenty times just to make sure that hat was going to be there, where it was supposed to be,” Hayes recalls. It’s dawning on the old Motown pros gathered at the auditorium just how meticulously Michael had choreographed this moment.
Drums: Bum-bap, bum-bap, bum-bap. Michael twirls to the left. He’s posing, hat upside-down in his right hand. He plops the hat on his head. Bass. Michael thrusts his crotch forward, again and again, then kicks his right leg so it’s almost horizontal. For the next six seconds, his movements are so quick and fluid and connected that it’s almost impossible to deconstruct and identify them. Michael splays his legs. He does more kicks. He holds a pose, then another in the reverse direction. He waves his hat to the right, but it’s a basketball head fake, and instead he tosses it offstage to the left. He claps. He tap-dances, glides a little. Synths. Two more thrusts of the crotch, then a hair-combing motion — the suggestion of a rockabilly greaser. At this time, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are old men, and “The Band Wagon” and “Singin’ in the Rain” seem hopelessly out of fashion in the rock era. Michael is bringing them back — the elegance, the dance tricks that seem like magic. Michael concentrates their moves into tantalizing bursts.
As Michael mouths the first line of “Billie Jean” — “She was more like a beauty queen” — his feet are unable to stop, bouncing left and right. Finally he settles down, eyes closed, concentrating into the microphone, tapping his left foot to the beat. He punctuates certain lines — “she caused a SCENE” — with high kicks, nearly parallel to the floor. Every moment is more intriguing than the next — he plants his foot to spin in a tight circle like he did with the Jackson 5, then holds his fists to his face, as if pleading, like James Brown, before hiking up his pants to display his white socks. For a moment, the camera catches a glimpse of the audience, unusually racially diverse for a concert hall in 1983, blacks and whites clapping together in tuxedos and gowns. The “Billie Jean” guitar solo arrives and recedes.
Finally, as Michael executes the moonwalk, formerly known as the backslide, formerly a dance belonging to the Electric Boogaloos, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Damita Jo Freeman, Casper and Cooley, Jeffrey Daniel, Mr. Bojangles, Bob Fosse, Marcel Marceau, and Shields and Yarnell, a sort of screech erupts from the crowd. “During rehearsals, he never did that. Only when he did the show,” recalls Russ Terrana, who as Motown’s veteran chief recording engineer was outside in the sound truck, taping Motown 25 for posterity. “My crew just went, ‘What the hell was that?’ You could hear the audience going, ‘Awwww-awwwww!'” Another leg kick, another whoop, another pose on the toes, two more spins, another brief glimpse of the moonwalk, and Michael is done. Is something different about his nose? It looks sculpted, precise, fussy, with thin little nostrils, not big and bold like it used to be. If anybody lingers over this detail, it is lost, for now, in the bigger story about the moonwalk. He bows and he is off. His brothers, mouths open in the wings throughout the performance, recover enough to slap Michael on the back when he returns. Before long, all the Motown stars are huddled around him. “When everybody ran up to congratulate him, it was like he wasn’t there. He had an out-of-body experience or something,” Valerie Simpson recalls. “He couldn’t respond to anybody. He wasn’t back to himself yet. He couldn’t come down to where he had gone to deal with us. It was just very, very eerie.” Afterward, MJ would say he was preoccupied — he had meant to stay on his toes a few ticks longer during the performance, and he felt like he’d failed. Nobody else noticed.
The day after the show aired, on May 16, 1983, Michael Jackson received a call from Fred Astaire. (“Oh, come on,” was Michael’s first reaction.) Astaire was eighty-four. He had filmed his final movie, Ghost Story, two years earlier. “You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night,” Fred Astaire told Michael Jackson. “You’re an angry dancer. I’m the same way. I used to do the same thing with my cane.” It remains a mystery exactly where the anger appears in Astaire’s elegant ballroom dancing — his persona in movies is bemused and easygoing — but “Billie Jean” was, in fact, an angry song, reflecting Michael’s feelings of fear and distrust for those around him. Michael was also angry at his father, who was still tomcatting around on Katherine and milking the family for cash.
“It was the greatest compliment I had ever received in my life,” Jackson would say of Astaire’s call, “and the only one I had ever wanted to believe.”
After Michael spoke with Fred on the phone, he went into the bathroom and threw up.
“Excerpted from MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper. Copyright © 2015 by Steve Knopper. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.”
*In still another version of the story, Jermaine writes in his autobiography that his mother talked Michael into it, as she’d often done on behalf of Michael’s brothers. The account ends the same way, with Michael saying, “Okay.” But Ikeda doesn’t buy it.
**When Marceau died in 2007, MJ told Jet the moonwalk inspiration came not from the mime but from “watching the great, rhythmic, wonderful black children dance around the world.”