If there’s one thing eight seasons of American Idol has taught me, it’s that you can have a great voice but if you don’t know how to connect with the song you’re singing, to be there in every note and emotion regardless of whether the song actually has personal resonance for you or not, then you’re no singer. Michael Jackson was certainly an astonishing child singer, which is why his cover of a Smokey Robinson song about a relationship gone sour, made before Michael even left grade school, remains more famous than any other version of that song sung by an adult. But while people justifiably rave about how he sang as a child, I also love what he brought to his songs as an adult. He didn’t necessarily have much more personal experience behind some of these songs than he’d had when he was eleven, I think, but he sang with more stylistic versatility. And as much as I enjoyed the staggering purity of his childhood voice, I also got tingly whenever his adult voice roughed things up.
But let’s start at the beginning for now, because if I start with some of the adult tingly songs this post will go in a whole other direction. From Michael’s childhood releases the average person probably knows I Want You Back and ABC best, but one of my favourite vocal performances by him at this age just before his voice broke is Got To Be There. I love the tenderness in the verses, and his power and control at “the moment I know she loves me” and “I need her sharing the world beside me”.
Soon after this Michael’s voice started to break, he shot up in height, and he got terrible acne. Adolescence can be a tough time even for people who don’t have to live through it in front of the world, and he’s written about feeling as if people were disappointed when they met him in his teenage years to find that he wasn’t the button-cute little boy with a voice reaching the rafters any more. Everyone already knows Ben, so instead I’ll feature this sensitive, wistful performance of With A Child’s Heart, from a 1973 appearance on Soul Train.
The slightly deeper voice didn’t actually deprive Michael of that much vocal range in the higher registers, as Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough shows, and every MJ impersonation ever done inevitably portrays him with a feminine voice. But he was equally capable of going low if a song called for it. Who Is It is a good example of this, and the a capella version demonstrates this even better than the album version. Until I heard the a capella version I had never noticed that in the first verse, for the lines “I gave her everything inside one heart could find” and “I gave her promises and secrets so untold”, his voice momentarily flits down by a fifth on the last words of those lines. For the musically inclined, I pitch that as somewhere around a low A (as in, the second A below middle C), which is more within baritone range than tenor. He reaches the same low A when he’s doing the bass part of the Who Is It beatboxing.
Another favourite a capella listen of mine is Dirty Diana, because I’ve always enjoyed the soft and hard edges of his voice in this song. I also really like it when he just goes gospel and lets things “get ugly”, in the words of my favourite American Idol contestant ever, Fantasia. I want to feature Keep The Faith here, because it seems to be a relatively unknown and very underrated song. Listen not just for Michael’s vocals but also for the exuberant a capella throwdown between Michael and the choir (the awesome Andrae Crouch Singers, who also sang at his memorial service). And if you haven’t recently watched the 1988 Grammy’s performance of Man In The Mirror, skip past the first half of it (which is lipsynced) and watch from 3.30 onwards to watch him absolutely throw himself into getting ugly, beautiful, high, low, everything.
- Only Human (Michael Jackson, 1958 – 2009)
- Remember The Time
- Remembering Michael Jackson ( Part 1): Billie Jean After Motown 25
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 2): Beatboxing and Songwriting
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 3): Not Just A Dancing Machine
- Remembering Michael Jackson (Part 4): Actually, A Total Freaking Dancing Machine