Like most people my age, Motown was a given, as omnipresent as the Beatles from my first waking moment. It was still a vital label and musical force, adapting to the changing times, as I became more conscious of pop music and the artists creating it during the early 1970s, with records from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5 filling the radio. And as with most people my age, the Jackson 5 were particularly relevant for me. They were just a bunch of kids, fronted by this soulful little singer and smooth dance, Michael. Along with the Beatles cartoons, there was a Jackson 5 cartoon on Saturday mornings. And I had a 45 of “ABC” on cardboard that you could cut out of the back of a Frosted Flakes cereal box. Remember those? Square little cardboard records with a round inlay of vinyl grooves to play on a turntable. I had to be careful that the corners did not fold up or they would hit the needle arm. We had white and black kids in our classes. The Jackson 5 seemed to be for all of us. There was one kid who was on his second tour of kindergarten, a kid much bigger physically than I was, who, with a few other kids, often built a stage in Mrs. Hall’s classroom out of those big hollow plywood blocks. When I brought the cereal-box record in to share and impress them with my shared enthusiasm for the Jackson 5, the two-time kindergarten veteran suggested that I give it to him. When I demurred, he knocked me down, put his sneaker on my face, and took the record without asking me again. But I sensed I was in.
I ever got much beyond those original Jackson 5 singles. Yeah, Off the Wall was around later and enjoyable. But it seemed so smooth and pop light to me when I was more heavily into rock music. And Thriller was something that my kid brothers and sister had around and was ubiquitous on MTV, but it was with this record in particular that Michael went on to represent much of what I hated about 1980s mainstream pop music; it was slick, cheap sounding, machinated-groove sequences with vocal tracks polished and layered beyond human soulfulness. It was just cheesy to me. Very few of the songs until “Do You Remember,” or “Black and White” did much for me and even those latter two are enjoyable on only a lightweight pop kind of way.
I won’t even get into the freakishness of Michael tragically falling away on a personal level; it has been covered, I believe, by now. It was just not relevant to my life. It was a sideshow from an artist who provided very little music that registered on my radar.
And I am not intending to just lay out some negative karma about Michael in the wake if his death and the subsequent surrounding hoopla. Neither am I trying to draw a direct parallel nor contrast him with Stevie Wonder. But the parallels are undeniably there: two inner-city kids who started out as children/young adolescents on Berry Gordy’s Motown label. But Stevie had already scored a bunch of hit singles and was on his way to making big artistic statements in the album format by the time Michael and his brothers rolled around.
However, while Stevie Wonder also eventually fell into 1980s pap and fluff, he provided one of the greatest streaks of albums and singles in the history of pop music. Perhaps only rivaled for my taste by the Beatles and Stones. And he remains a highly vital performer today. Seeing him perform a couple of years ago was as close to a religious experience as I have gotten. Here was a guy who grew up to completely fulfill — and then some — the promise he laid out as a prodigy. I was about the age of both of these guys when they started out as child performers, 10, when I bought my first album purchase, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I had long ago inherited albums by the Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, etc. My parents had some Elvis LPs. And I had a big rope of 45s from the British Invasion and, later, contemporary top 40 songs I bought on my own. But the first album I remember buying is Songs in the Key of Life. This was a double album with an accompanying booklet and additional four-song seven-inch. The music was just bursting out of Stevie to the point that it spilled out off of a double LP into another bonus single. I had never seen anything like it before. The bonus record included this incredible piece of updated New Orleans piano funk called “Ebony Eyes.” I played this track until the record wore off. And then, somewhere down the line, it broke and/or got lost.
In college, digging through someone else’s record collection in my dorm, I came across this 45 again and it was like finding the Lost Ark. I had not listened to the tune probably since before high school. It had probably been five years since I had heard it, as this is not a song I have ever heard on the radio, to this day. My friends at college were ecstatic to learn of this track and it quickly became a staple in the dorm DJ sessions we would spin while drinking and doing whatever else one does in college dorms.
Later, Songs in the Key of Life was one of the first CDs I picked up when that format came out, and there was my old favorite in digital format. And of course, nowadays it is always there to pop up on the iPod. When it came time for the residencies at the bar gigs I started doing with the two iterations of Crown Victoria, we started rotating a Faces-like version into the set. So it is a natural that I try it here in the Cover of the Week project. I have enlisted by rock & roll brother, foil, and piano man from Buffalo Tom and Crown Victoria to accompany me. Phil Aiken sent me the track he did back in the Dr. John/Professor Longhair tradition, bringing the song back a little toward New Orleans. I had intended to lay some guitar over it, but Phil played such a beautiful part that I saw no need to sully it with half-assed guitar. And it serves as a nice change of pace, I think. Major props to Philly Phil Aiken.