Inside Michael Jackson’s Iconic First Moonwalk Onstage
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.”