There is a famous clip of Michael being interviewed as a child, in which he’s asked what he’ll do when his voice breaks. Michael nonchalantly shrugs the questioner’s concern off and says he’ll just keep singing.
In fact, as Michael aged, his vocal range actually increased – with him adding lower notes to his repertoire.
Michael’s optimal vocal range encompassed four octaves and forty-four notes.
Yet, technicalities aside – what made Michael’s voice so special? So – despite Sony’s best efforts – inimitable? What made the sections of any songs Michael performed when part of an all-star ensemble, such as ‘We Are The World’ or ‘What More Can I Give?’ stand out so starkly?
Michael wrote many songs that were recorded and released by others. Whilst listening to such tracks, for example Ralph Tresvant’s ‘Alright Now’ (reminiscent of Michael’s songs ‘Free’ and ‘Elizabeth I Love You’) or Rebbie Jackson’s version of ‘Fly Away’, although one can hear the classic Michael Jackson sound, they also seem to possess a throwaway element absent from the songs Michael chose to record and release himself. Indeed, in ‘Fly Away’, as pleasant as Rebbie’s voice certainly is, it’s Michael’s contribution to the chorus and guest adlibs at the song’s denouement that steal the show.
The same applies for the 3T hit ‘I Need You’ – a track that Taj Jackson has admitted the brothers weren’t keen to include on the album, but ultimately chose to after Michael’s recommendation as their producer. On the face of it, one can appreciate the brothers’ hesitance; but then one must also bear in mind that Michael’s capacity for stoking an insipid ballad into an epic crescendo was second to none.
Michael talks about this technique in the video I uploaded today (see below). The video is an edit of the 1993 Mexico deposition Michael underwent as part of a plagiarism case brought against him regarding the song ‘The Girl Is Mine’. Apart from the video being a remarkable window into Michael’s songwriting process, it also demonstrates how downright cynical and farcical the attempt to sue him for stealing the song was.
‘The Girl Is Mine’ is unfairly maligned as being the weakest song on the ‘Thriller’ album. Paul McCartney had his doubts about the lyrical content, but Michael responded that he was less concerned about the details than he was achieving the right “feel” for the song. Watching Michael in the video below, it’s easy to see his fondness for the track. Of course, Michael had worked with McCartney previously, with ‘Girlfriend’ from ‘Off The Wall’ having been penned by him.
McCartney recorded ‘Girlfriend’ for his ‘London Town’ album, but understood that Michael’s voice would be better suited to the tune. Smokey Robinson also acknowledged this when he offered the young Michael his song ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’.
As with ‘The Girl Is Mine’, the duet ‘Just Good Friends’ is similarly derided as the weakest song on the ‘Bad’ album. Musically, perhaps. But once again, Michael’s precious voice elevates the song to a plane of pure pleasure.
Incidentally, regarding the ‘The Girl Is Mine’ plagiarism case – how dare anyone deny Michael’s songwriting pedigree when he was the prodigy of Stevie Wonder?
Such was Michael’s innate understanding of music and sound, he always understood the best voices to work with for the benefit of the song, be that the grittiness of Mick Jagger for ‘State Of Shock’ (although originally recorded with Freddie Mercury, when the track had a more playful tone), be it the anger of his sister Janet for ‘Scream’ or else the romanticism of Siedah Garrett for ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ or the seduction of Carole Bayer-Sager for ‘It’s The Falling In Love’.
Michael’s childhood training involved him performing cover versions of some of the greatest songs of all time, such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. Such is the iconic status of these tracks, it’s arguable whether Michael’s takes on them supersede the high standard of the originals. Nevertheless, Michael’s vocal performances are irrefutably astonishing.
What’s less dubious is the positive effect of Michael’s influence on the cover versions he chose to record as an adult. His version of ‘Come Together’ invigorates the song with a funky sultriness, whilst his interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ has now become the definitive rendition.
Really, there should be little surprise that Michael’s voice is so enjoyed by so many millions of people. After all, the unique talent he was bestowed with was diligently crafted for four decades. Still, there remains an exquisite, intangible, enigmatic beauty to it.
One perhaps best surmised by Sir Bob Geldof in 1996 as he introduced Michael to the stage with the words,
“When Michael Jackson sings, it is with the voice of angels.”
Italian translation available here: http://amzn.to/1O85aRV