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Michael Jackson: Musical History

A sidewalk shrine of mementoes, flowers, candles and notes adorns the star of Michael Jackson on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles Friday, June 26, 2009. Jackson died Thursday of an apparent heart attack. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
A sidewalk shrine of mementoes, flowers, candles and notes adorns the star of Michael Jackson on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles Friday, June 26, 2009. Jackson died Thursday of an apparent heart attack. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) (Reed Saxon - AP)

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David Nathan
Music Journalist and Historian
Friday, June 26, 2009; 3:00 PM

An autopsy is being conducted today on mega-pop star Michael Jackson, the Los Angeles County Coroner's office said, but results of toxicology and other tests that will help determine the cause of death will not be known for a week or more.

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Jackson, 50, died yesterday in Los Angeles as sensationally as he lived, as famous as a human being can get. He was a child Motown phenomenon who grew into a moonwalking megastar, the self-anointed King of Pop who sold 750 million records over his career and enjoyed worldwide adoration.

David Nathan, R and B and soul music historian and founder of Soulmusic.com, was online Friday, June 26, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the Jackson 5, the group's beginnings, their music and the emergence of brother Michael as a superstar. Nathan has interviewed Michael Jackson twice over the years and had a one-on-one meeting with him in New York to discuss a photo book in the early 2000s.

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David Nathan: Hi this is David Nathan, I'm the founder of www.soulmusic.com and formerly the U.S. editor for Britain's Blues & Soul magazine. I interviewed Michael and The Jackson 5 during the '70s and met with him in the 2000s.

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Washington, D.C.: Who really "discovered" the Jackson Five? Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Bobby Taylor (of the Vancouvers) or Suzanne de Passe? There are a million stories going around.

David Nathan: There is indeed confusion about this! My understanding is that initially it was in fact Gladys Knight who mentioned the group to Berry Gordy. Subsequently, Bobby Taylor (of the Vancouvers) met them and shared about them with Suzanne DePasse who had just started working with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr in 1968. It took a few attempts to get Gordy to agree to see the group but he did at DePasse's insistence and once he saw them, he knew they were right for Motown. Diana Ross' involvement was the using of her name (as Motown's 'first lady' and an already-established hitmaker) to 'introduce' The Jackson Five, like a way of giving them an immediate stamp of approval

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Arlington, Va. : What was your impression of the family in your encounters?

David Nathan: They seemed very 'tight' and cool with each other! I remember being invited by the publicist for Epic Records to a lunch with them - just me, him and the J5 - in Los Angeles. It was quite informal - they wanted to talk about moving to Epic from Motown. Michael was quite quiet but he did respond to questions in an intelligent and thoughtful way as I recall.

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Chiampo - Vicenza - Italy: Will his career be able to remain clear despite the ugly accusations against him?

David Nathan: I think that his music will remain timeless and that with the passage of time, Michael will be remembered for his immense musical contribution to the world, much like Elvis, The Beatles, etc. who also had their fair share of 'scandal' or negative media attention during their careers.

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Whitburn, West Lothian, Scotland, UK: There will never be anyone that can ever get to his level he was just so great.My heart will go to his family and friends and he will always be missed.

David Nathan: My heart is also with his family for they have lost a brother, father, son, uncle, etc. beyond his status as a worldwide celebrity. I agree: I don't think anyone will ever get to that same level of global success.

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Gettysburg, Pa.: What would you consider to be the high point of MJ's career? When was he at the top of his game?

David Nathan: For me, he was at the very very top of his game with Thriller. There are millions and millions of people all over the world who can recite the words to every song on that album! (I know most of them!)

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Why do you think that Michael Jackson appealed to so many fans outside of the US? Was it just the music?

David Nathan: His music transcended language, race and culture. He was such a pioneer in music and video and stage performance - the energy and excitement was so great that audiences and music buyers everywhere just loved what he was providing. Also outside the US, there isn't so much 'categorizing' of music - he wasn't thought of as an "R&B" or "pop" artist and his race didn't make any difference to people. I think most non-US audience are that way - they love the music for what it is regardless of the artist's ethnicity.

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Physical location Washington, D.C. (but I'm from Paris France): Why do you think Europeans were more forgiving of Michael Jackson's personal lives than Americans? Do you think his legacy will be different on both continent? Will Europeans remember him more for his music while Americans will value his legacy as far as being one of the first African American artists played on MTV, etc...?

David Nathan: Wow...that's quite a question! :) To answer it, I would need to say that I think Europeans are a lot more easy-going about 'life' and morality. Europeans tend to be less 'hung up' on what people do privately - it is not uncommon for politicians in Europe to have affairs outside their relationships and nobody blinks. They certainly don't have to resign for such things (in U.S. they do usually!) I do think ultimately, his legacy will be his music, his showmanship and his place as a video pioneer

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Fairfax, Va.: Was there jealousy among the brothers? Michael seemed to always be the favored one. Who made that so? Did Berry Gordy have anything to do with it or did the Jacksons' father decide it?

David Nathan: I can't say if there was jealousy although we all know that sibling rivalry exists in MOST families whether they're known publicly or not! I think Michael's emergence as the focal point of the group started with Joe Jackson who recognized the incredible talent of Michael as a singer at such an early early age. It was inevitable that once Berry Gordy saw the group and saw this young kid singing a song like "Who's Loving You," he knew Michael would be the centre of attention.

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Washington, D.C.: Why does the press keep saying that he was the "self-annointed King of Pop"? This is false. Please do your journalism due-diligence before you write such untruths. He was given that name by Elizabeth Taylor and the press picked up on it and then started using that to describe Mr. Jackson.

David Nathan: I gotcha. Thanks for making that clear to everyone - although in fairness, I do know that his personal publicist Bob Jones (who was a friend of mine) jumped on the use of the term and Michael didn't mind! :)

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washingtonpost.com: Michael Jackson's Musical Legacy Will Endure

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Annandale, Va.: Were there hard feelings when he decided to stop working with Quincy Jones?

David Nathan: Can't say for sure but I think Quincy would have wanted to continue the association - that's the impression I get.

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Durham, N.C.: Who's idea was it to recruit Eddie Van Halen to play the guitar solo on "Beat It"? Michael's or Quincy's. And do you think that it was a calculated move to help get more radio airplay on "white" radio stations by collaborating with the person who was the most famous guitar hero of the time?

David Nathan: I would guess (and it is a guess) that it was probably Quincy's as a producer who had worked with many great artists before he worked with Michael. Quincy's skill at 'casting' and putting the right musicians in place was already well known. He may have done that to help Michael get more 'white' airplay but I'm sure Michael didn't need much convincing that it was a brilliant move! Eddie's contribution to "Beat It" DEFINITELY made a difference in widening the appeal of the song!

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Europe vs. US: "I think Europeans are a lot more easy-going about 'life' and morality." Yeah, I remember how unconcerned and nonjudgmental they were about Lady Di. My $.02: If it mattered more to Americans (and I don't really buy that premise), it may be because it was more of a "local" story for us. Americans get more wrapped around the axle about American celebs, and Europeans about Europeans. Still Jackson's albums sold in the millions annually here, and if he had launched the concert tour in the U.S. it undoubtedly would have sold out in seconds. After all, if New Kids can sell out venues.....

David Nathan: Havng lived in BOTH places, I can tell you without any question that Americans do have a tendency to be a little more judgemental and 'moralistic' about what goes on in people's 'private' lives. Do Europeans love scandal too? Yes, yes, yes. They just don't tend to make such severe judgements. And you do have a point about how Americans view American celebs.

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23112: To me, the best MJ was the Off The Wall period, before the definitive "Jackson/Jones" sound was finalized. "She's Out Of My Life" was a song that I don't think he would have recorded after Thriller was released. As good as they were, all the songs after Thriller seemed to have a common theme in arrangements until "Scream" (or maybe "Remember The Time," but Teddy Riley puts a BIG stamp on anything he produces).

David Nathan: We are on the same page about that song. I absolutely love his performance on She's Out Of My Life". So emotional, so real, so soulful. Brilliant. Feel the same way about Human Nature and Lady In My Life. Totally brilliant.

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Washington, D.C.: When's the funeral?

David Nathan: I don't know and I don't think that info has been announced

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King of Pop: Rewriting history already? Or just ignorance? He chose that monicker, and for a time required MTV and other music outlets to use it when his videos were played.

David Nathan: It is true that he required the media to use it once it was used. But I think that Liz Taylor was the one who came up with it first!

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Chantilly, Va.: Do you think that Jackson was worried and stressed out about all those concerts he was going to do, that he wasn't used to that grueling pace, that he may have overextended himself and that he may have had a seizure or heart attack because of that? It was a lot to take on for someone who hadn't toured in years. I hear he was very fragile.

David Nathan: Yes, I think he was fragile and yes, I think he had a lot at stake in doing the shows. That's an enormous commitment to take on for anyone - especially a man of 50. When I first heard he was doing that number of shows, I thought it was a massive undertaking for ANYONE let alone someone of his age.

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Herndon, Va.: I literally gasped out loud when I heard the MJ had died. I'm 44; I grew up to his music. As kids my younger sister and I would argue over which one of us was going to marry Michael and which would get stuck with Jermaine.

I don't know if he did the things he was accused of or not, but I do know that fame and pressure have broken many an adult in the entertainment industry. I can't imagine what it must've been like to experience that as a child.

I hope people can separate the accusations and weirdness from the immense talent the man had.

RIP, Michael.

David Nathan: I share your feelings about separating the man from what you call his 'weirdness'. In my experience of interviewing artists for three decades, I have always focused on the MUSIC - truly, many of the artists we love have many personal issues and challenges much like we all do but magnified because they have chosen to be in the public eye.

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Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!: So who's the new King of Pop?

David Nathan: There isn't one as far as I can tell.

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Washington, D.C. : Do you think that Jackson's talent from his earlier years remained strong?

David Nathan: I think as with all artists, it changed. I have always loved the early Motown recordings and then the first few solo albums which were so groundbreaking and brilliant. I think his talent changed as he changed as a person....

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Europe v. U.S.: I'm not sure that Europeans would have been any less judgmental if there had been definitive proof that MJ had abused or molested children. I DO think that Europeans are more used to sensationalist journalism and tend to be more skeptical about media frenzies and wild accusations. In the U.S., we have a tendency to convict first based on rumor and gossip and ask questions later, if ever.

The unanswered and unanswerable questions that lingered around Mr. Jackson did him a huge disservice here in the U.S., where a significant chunk of the public was not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

David Nathan: Your point about 'convict first' based on rumour and gossip is exactly what I was driving at. That's at the heart of the difference as far as I see it.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Given the success of MJs videos, do you know if he was courted by directors for movie roles? Suriprisingly, I only remember "The Wiz."

David Nathan: I think that what's involved in movies (the time, the constant filming) is so time-consuming and all-encompassing that Michael chose not to pursue this because of his enormous success as a recording artist and performer.

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Washington, D.C.: Did Michael Jackson write the lyrics to most of his music? How involved was he in the production of his records? Did he ever play any musical instruments? In general, how deep was his musical acumen?

David Nathan: He wrote more as time went on. I suspect that he was quite involved in production of his music after Off The Wall. I think he knew how to play the guitar but didn't do it much. With all he learned at Motown and beyond, I would say he had strong musical knowledge.

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Annapolis, Md.: Why did the group leave Motown?

David Nathan: I think this had much to do with the desire for more creative control. Motown was a very tight ship: artists were mostly assigned producers (except of course Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye in the '70s) so I think Joe Jackson and the group wanted much more input into what they recorded

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Washington, D.C.: Were those videos conceived by Michael Jackson or did he work with others? Directors, writers, etc.?

David Nathan: My understanding is that he worked closely with writers and directors of the videos, that some were his direct concept while others were a collaborative effort.

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washingtonpost.com: That concludes today's discussion with David Nathan. Thank you for joining in.

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Michael Jackson

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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