What comes to mind when you think of Michael Jackson? Is it the single sequined glove? Maybe it’s his famous Moonwalk dance, gliding effortlessly, backwards across the stage. Or do you think of his controversies? Do you think of how he built a secluded oasis for himself at the Neverland Ranch, his curious marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, or the various accusations of sexual improprieties with children? Do you think of the sad way he died, overdosing with a heavy anesthetic drug just so he could get a little sleep?
Whatever mistakes Michael Jackson may have made during his short life, whatever sins he may have committed, we should also remember his music, because his music was brilliant.
The world became aware of Michael Jackson when he recorded and performed as a child with his family as The Jackson 5, first singing with the group when he was only six years old. The group would eventually sign with the Motown label, and release a consistent string of Top Ten 10 hits through the late 60’s and early 70’s. Their finest recording is perhaps “I’ll Be There,” recorded when Michael was 11 years old.
What makes so many of The Jackson 5 songs so remarkable is that they were not written for children. The songs often convey adult themes and feelings, and even though the voices singing these mature songs are clearly those of children and teenagers, they never come across as anything but sincere and believable.
The songs were well written. Berry Gordy, owner of the Motown label, wrote “I’ll Be There” with Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob West. The song begins with a stacatto organ melody, soon joined by a bass and drums. A single, sliding bass note brings us to the start of the first verse as the rest of the instrumentation dies away. We hear Michael’s lone, high pitched voice.
“You and I must make a pact
We must bring salvation back,
Where there is love, I’ll be there.”
Though the song is being sung by an 11 year old, we have no trouble imagining a grown man singing to his wife or girlfriend. The rest of the Jackson 5 echo “I’ll be there” in perfect harmony as the band comes back in.
“I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do.
Just call my name and I’ll be there.”
“I’ll Be There” was recorded in 1970, when bands like The Grateful Dead and The Band were democratizing music. There was no clear leader of these bands. They all wrote the songs, and they all shared vocals, sometimes different singers would sing lead in the same song, trading off verses. I like to think that Motown was listening to The Band around this time, and worked a little of that ethos into songs like “I’ll Be There.” In the third and fourth verses, Michael’s falsetto is beautifully offset by the deeper, more adult voice of his older brother Jermaine who now sings lead, backed by the lush harmony of his brothers.
“I’ll be there to comfort you,
Build my world of dreams around you,
I’m so glad that I found you.
I’ll be there with a love so strong,
I’ll be your strength,
You know I’ll keep holdin’ on.”
The last words echo. Holding on…holding on…holding on. Michael comes back in on the next verse. His voice passionate, almost straining.
“Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter,
Togetherness, well it’s all I’m after,
Just call my name, and I’ll be there.”
As with most great love songs, there is not much of a story here. I love you, believe in me, trust me, we’ll always be together. The promises and proclamations continue, and Jermaine repeats the verses he sung before. Then, towards the end, as the band is playing between verse and chorus, Michael belts out a massive “Just look over your shoulder, honey!”
Everyone in the studio was taken by surprise. Michael wasn’t asked to sing these words, and they never appeared on the written page. Michael was 11 years old, and he had the confidence and the talent and the creative sensibility to know that this exclamation is exactly what this song needed at that exact moment. Think of yourself at 11 years old.
Say what you will about Michael Jackson, call him what you will. Maybe he was brilliant recluse musical genius. Maybe he was a deceptive opportunist who did things nobody should do, regardless of their wealth or fame. For a time, at least, he was a great singer. A bright, confident young man with a future nobody could have imagined.
“I’ll Be There”
Written by Berry Gordy, Hal Davis, Willie Hutch and Bob West
Performed by The Jackson 5
Released August 28, 1970