I called my sister last week and told her I had run into Michael Jackson. She screamed. Then my niece grabbed the phone and begged me, long distance, “Please, please, oh my God. Are they coming? Get me tickets. I don’t care. You owe me $4 from a long time ago. I want tickets. What’s Michael like? Were his brothers there? Ohhhhhhhh, my Gawddddd!” My brother got word and offered financial advice, but it was my mother who asked the crucial question: “Tell me, what happened?”
Well, Ma, it was like this: I was sitting in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio one balmy, breezy evening in mid-May, watching Randy Jackson cue up the Jackson tour band, when Michael strolled in without fanfare or entourage for his first full-band, pre-tour rehearsal. The rest I don’t remember, because I fainted. Just kidding, Ma. I was cool, and so was he.
He seemed taller than the televised images and photos suggest, and he walked with his hands behind his back, obviously relaxed. He wore blue jeans, a red-sequined jacket, black shoes and white socks. No white glove, Ma. Instead, he offered a slender hand to stage technicians, sound people and production assistants. Then he hopped briskly onto the three-foot stage at one end of the plain, uncarpeted, dark-walled room to greet the band members, who were busy tuning their instruments. He hugged the musicians he had worked with before, welcoming newcomers with more handshakes. The room was turned on, electric. Michael was home, and his presence made it official: The Jacksons would soon be coming to America—live.
Such is the closeness of the brothers that if you see one of them during the course of their workday—which these days is usually from 7 a.m. to the early hours of the next morning, seven days a week—the others are bound to be nearby. Like clockwork, Jackie, lean and athletic in yellow baggy pants and gray sweatshirt, arrived, followed minutes later by the ample Tito and a few minutes later by Jermaine, whose bouncy entrance inspired a flood of banter and jokes about his tardiness. (Only Marlon, tied up co-producing sister Janet’s upcoming solo LP, couldn’t make it.)
The subject of Michael’s first rehearsal was, fittingly enough, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, from his Off the Wall solo LP (the tour will feature some familiar gold as well as soon-to-be megahits from the Victory LP, scheduled for late June release). After numerous twangs, plunks and clunks, the band was ready. Jermaine strapped on his bass, Michael and Jackie took possession of the lead mike, and Randy—in what has by now become the Jack-sons’ ignition tradition—turned to drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffitt and said, “You got it, Foots.” From the back, Foots clapped his sticks together and shouted, “One, two, three, four,” as the band powered into a lightning-hot, slick and polished sound that shook the walls. Michael stepped forward, and the only element missing now was 50,000 screaming fans. Then four bars into the song, Michael silenced the band.
Patiently but forcefully, he explained that his arrangement had certain non-negotiable requirements. Early on there’s an ensemble attack that’s got to happen and that’s got to be big, because there are certain dance steps involved. He directed the band to try the trouble spot. They tried it. “That’s not it,” Michael said. “It’s got to be big, really big, right there.” They tried it again. Michael looked at Jackie for confirmation. They shook their heads. The band tried again. Still not right. Randy and the keyboard players made sound and synthesizer texture adjustments. Again they slammed at it, and yet again, with the entire electronic wizardry and power of the nine-man ensemble zeroing in on one thunderous upbeat until they socked the note—a single harmonized note—with the power of a 50-piece orchestra. Only then did they move on.
This kind of preparation is a tedious and difficult process because the Jacksons are sticklers for musical detail. Each has more than 15 years experience in the business, and among them they have sold some 150 million records. Each can hear in his mind’s ear the keyboard harmonies, the rhythm guitar licks, the synthesizer patterns, the drumbeats and bass hooks that create music up to the family standard. While this particular arrangement was Michael’s, Tito heard a guitar harmony that wasn’t quite correct. Jackie demanded a drum punch. By instinct—words are unnecessary—they all seemed to divine what Michael wanted. “We still have that unity,” Jackie would say later. “We don’t look at each other as competition. I’m proud of Michael. Whether it’s Michael or Marlon or Jermaine or Tito doing it, they’re all my brothers.”
Two hours later the arrangement was nearly complete with only one trouble spot. Midway through, Michael asked for a short vocal break—a solo—but the band couldn’t make its entrance cleanly, a tricky move requiring split-second timing. First the musicians tried counting it, then just plunging ahead, Zen-like. No good. Jermaine had an idea. Crossing the stage, he conferred with Michael and Jackie, and the three nodded. Next time through, Michael took a longer solo break, giving the band more time to count, and they pounded in right on time. Just to be sure, they stopped and tried again. Beautiful. Now for the acid test.
Counting off the song from the very beginning, Michael let the band work up to the trouble spot, then started his solo. The hard part now, of course, was for the band to make its entrance cleanly after Michael made his. The musicians were poised. Foots held his sticks raised, frozen in midair; the keyboard players hovered in mid-chord, hands ready to strike. Every guitar string and red amplifier light was absolutely still and silent. Suddenly, instead of singing into the mike, Michael backed away and engaged in a four-second private conversation with Jackie. The whole room tittered and, just as suddenly, Michael stepped back up to the microphone and began to sing. The band came crashing in—right on the money, and the whole room burst out laughing.
Within the next hour, the song and arrangement would be spit-polished and shined into a groove so hot and high-spirited that normally staid sound technicians and production personnel would forget themselves and half dance on the floor, nodding to one another and saying, “Woooo, man, aw-right.” And Randy would jump up from his keyboard, clapping and hollering. And Michael and Jackie would playfully nudge one another and do a quick step or two. And everybody would grin.
Later Michael would promise the band, “One more time, guys, then we’ll take a break.” But they would play that song again tonight, not simply until it was merely “right,” but until it was—to use one of Michael’s favorite words—”perfect.” By then it would be 1 a.m. and everyone would be exhausted, and the Jacksons would go home, only to wake up and start all over again at 7 a.m.