Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew Michael Jackson wouldn’t live to the ripe old age of 80, that his death would be sad, and tragic and lonely. But even with that premonition, when I got word yesterday afternoon that he probably was dead, and later that he was, I was shaken.
I had all kinds of thoughts as I reflected back to when the Jackson 5, first known as the Ripples and Waves, plus Michael, then the Jackson Brothers or “those boys from Gary” hit the circuit in Chicago in the 60s. I remember how it felt to see them perform “I Want You Back” on the TV show “Hollywood Palace” and later on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
But I also thought about the fact that this is Black Music Month, and I can’t think of anyone person who can help me make my case of the importance of black music and black radio. The remarkable story of Michael and his brothers and their meteoric rise to fame perfectly illustrates the power of black radio and how, in some ways, it can be relegated to the “unsung” category because it rarely gets the props that it truly deserves. If it had not been for black radio, there would have been no Jackson 5 — well, maybe they would have existed, but they never would have gotten the national acclaim they received in such a record period. So, as the world credits Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, Motown and others, I’m waiting to hear a salute to black radio and Herb Kent for discovering those boys from Gary. The Jackson 5 sang a tribute to their roots when they recorded “Going Back to Indiana … but, not surprisingly, no tribute to black radio.
By the early 70s, the Jackson 5 were what’s considered fighting words for some people: Bigger than the Beatles. I don’t know a black person in America whose life wasn’t touched in some way by watching a family of young boys sing and dance their way to superstardom with what seemed like a summer of endless hits. By 1970, we got “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There,” all number-one hits. Every black girl could name every member, and depending on her age, had designated either Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon or Michael her future husband. Black America had never seen anything like it.
Black radio was with Michael from the beginning, and by the time mainstream swooped him up and claimed him as theirs, black America had begun to raise an eyebrow about Michael and could see that he was a troubled soul. Sure, we loved “Rock with You” as much or more than anybody else, but by then, we could see something deeper in Michael than the average fly-by-night fan. Like that nephew or cousin that you worry about and are fiercely protective of, many of us could see signs of trouble ahead. Long story short: Mainstream media embraced the King of Pop, exploited him, and then abandoned him while he still had a lot more to give. They idolized him when he was at the top with “Thriller” and “Billie Jean.” But even when he was labeled weird, crazy, dysfunctional and worse, he could and would always come home to black radio because to us, in spite of his bizarre look, he was that family member that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to abandon.
We couldn’t and didn’t ignore the allegations or the struggles played out in the media. When mainstream radio practically ignored his “Invincible” CD in 2002, black radio gave it airplay, giving the beautiful ballad, “Butterflies” its due. I think we rooted for Michael through it all because of all the joy and pride he brought us when we were young and innocent enough to believe that summer would last forever. Somewhere deep inside, I know I hoped, by some miracle, one day Michael would emerge happy and healthy – and that he had at least one more “Thriller” in him. I was wrong.
Rest in Peace, MJ.