The black and pop music division in record companies was traditionally segregated and the budgets afforded were small compared to those given to promising white pop acts. Plus, a black artist still had to prove himself on the black charts while building his image as a pop artist waiting for the opportunity to be there, just to wait for it. Finally, the good work paid off.
In the early 80s, a small startup TV network named Music Television (now MTV) started showing music videos and revitalized the rock industry and later the black pop sound. So industry executives insisted.
According to Records Magazine, in 1982, black artists recorded 9 percent of the year pop hits, compared to 1984, when the black artists recorded 23 percent of the songs that had been in the Top 10.
While black artists made records, they were also breaking them for the first time, and the black act recorded the ten best selling albums on the Billboard charts in August 1984. And six black artists scored top ten singles.
“Not since 1972 had so many black artists appeared on the Pop Charts”, said Matt Wilson, at that time research Director of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. Despite having been categorically denied access to mainstream radio, black artists had long pollinated white music. “The roots of rock and rolls are buried deep in black musical traditions. “As far back as the ’20, there were references in “rock and rolls” on so-called “race records. In the ’30, the story goes, if I could only find a white man who had a Black sound and the black feel, I could make a billion of dollars,” Sam Philips, owner of Sun Records, remarked. His discovery was, of course, Elvis Presley. It’s no secret, either, that some of rock’s greatest white stars stole music from black musicians, popularised the tunes, and made millions of dollars. To remember that in August 84, Little Richard filed suit seeking royalties for songs made famous by Presley, Mick Jagger, and even Pat Boone.
However, more and more, black artists popularized their musical idioms and made millions themselves attracting a wider audience. According to Billboard, the pop and black market constituted about 75% of the records buying public in the ’80 (about 15% is black, 60% is pop). Nevertheless, record companies tended to play down a pop artist’s race.
Michael Jackson‘s luck had been phenomenal publicity while his geniality was within content marketing that made him pop royalty.
In 1984, Michael Jackson broke nearly as many recording industry records as he had teenage hearts. With 35 million copies of his album Thriller sold worldwide and eight Grammys sitting somewhere in the Encino home he shared with his parents, Michael Jackson could hold court with The Beatles, Elvis, and The Rolling Stones in the palace of rock and rolls. But Michael was different, though. He was black.
He was the kind of guy everybody accepts and loves. His sex appeal doesn’t threaten anybody”, explained Dick Griffey, President of the American Black Music Association (BMA) and Solar Records.
It was that appeals exposed, marketed, and promoted by the sheer force of Michael Jackson’s personality and talent that made him a multicultural symbol. His success also helped other black artists – especially those aiming to capture a predominantly white audience around the world of mainstream rock.
Prince, Ray Parker Jr, Jermaine Jackson, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sister, and Peabo Bryson were among the names dominating the 1984 Top Ten Radio waves. Other longtime stars of the pre-disco era Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross, continued to have a stronghold on the pop mainstream.
“Thanks to Michael Jackson, people did not think of them as white or black and at least in music audience had become more and more color blind,” stated CBS Records executive Bob Altshuler.
Discussions raised that most big-selling black artists’ acts usually had white managers and advisors. But black artists and managers – selling hards driving “urban” sound – tended to disagree, according to BMA President Dick Griffey. “We are certainly not living in a color-blind society. It’s very color-conscious,” said Griffey. “If it were a white cat making Rick James music (funk a delish rock), he’d be on the pop chart and getting radios to play.”
Certain sound and images get accepted easier”. That’s why selling black acts to pop audience take more than talent,” said Neil Portnow, Vice President of Arista Records “it takes image building. Image building –or the endemic marketing of Michael Jackson“.
Jackson was as widely recognized as the President and probably more popular even if there was a time when he begged for –and was refused – a spot on Rolling Stone’s cover.
In 1979 after the release of his solo album Off The Wall, Michael changed. The Afro was replaced with the “wet look,” and he appeared more smoothed. “To round it all, he dressed in a tuxedo, as if it were a symbol of his crossover into white-dominated entertainment,” wrote Paul Honeyford in a book, “The Thrill of Michael Jackson. “To avoid being considered too black,” Honeyford wrote, “Jackson seems to have changed his appearances to gain widespread acceptance.”
It was about that time that Jackson tried unsuccessfully for a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine. The publisher responded to Jackson publisher Norman Winter: “Dear Norman, while I do agree The Jacksons are talented, they have been on the cover, and while “Off The Wall” is a great album and Michael is a talented young man, I don’t think he is cover material.“
Five years later, the same publisher Norman Winter was besieged by thousands of requests for interviews with Jackson as fans filed into The Jackson’s first Victory tour concert in Kansas City, covered with Michael Jackson merchandise. On every stop of the Victory Tour, girls of all races waited hours to catch a glimpse of this latest pop infatuation all over America. In the guess of ” Who Coming to Dinner” age of a decade ago, Michael Jackson’s ability to make white girls fail faint would have raised a few eyebrows.
Rumors were that Michael put the Rolling Stone refusal letter on his wall, next to another letter that he got from publisher Jann Wenner saying, “Dear Michael, I’d love to have you on the cover, and I’d like to have Richard Avedon photograph it.”
By appearing on many magazine covers, Jackson broke another race barrier. He forced the predominantly white mainstream press to take him, and consequently, other black pop artists more seriously. Other record companies and artists have followed Jackson’s lead.
Yet Jackson consistently refused interviews, provoking the media to speculate that his persona was fabricated for promotional purposes only. Jackson’s publicist insisted that Michael’s image reflected his personality. “Jackson is apolitical and color blind, sexually safe, a nice, middle-class young man who still lives with mom and dad and espouses conservative values.” Said Howard Bloom. “His music, an infectious blend of reggae, disco, pop, rock, soul, and rhythm & blues, eschews traditional black street themes and a Rick James style, urban, funk beat.”
He was still the same shy, self-effacing guy he had always been, a close friend and associate maintained, “Somehow – I’d attribute to it to religion, family and a sort unworldliness all at once—he does retain an unmistakable if rather a spaced-out aura and humility, mission, and service. All he wants is the chance to entertain every single human being in the entire world,” wrote Robert Christgau in Village Voice.
Produced by Quincy Jones, already renowned for making black crossover artists, Thriller was a success, but Michael’s videos on MTV were the first to break the network’s nearly all-white format. In ‘83, Jackson took music videos to a new level with Thriller — 14-minute epic music and an actual mini-movie threaded into a music video. The video had it all — Hollywood-direction (John Landis), Jackson and zombies choreographically dancing in a graveyard, and, of course, Vincent Price giving kids nightmares. This was unheard of in the 80s and revolutionized the music video genre. Another confirm that creative content comes in a lot of formats.
In that period, also Prince became the king of radio request lines. From the beginning, Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli and Warner Brothers decided Prince would hat both the black and the pop charts, according to Bloom.
“The press motivated Warner Brothers to see Prince as a rock artist instead of black or “urban” sounding artists,” Bloom says. That done, “Warner Brothers flew radio programs directors from all over the country to see Prince concerts.” It worked. Prince considered himself a revolutionary force because he, like his band, represented a fusion of the races and sexes and because his music is his own, self-taught eclectic mix.
There was a blueprint for pop stardom in the ’80. The industry was looking for artists that were talented and appealed to a broad spectrum of people. Pop could appeal to blacks and white, and when it did, it meant more money for the artist, the record company, for everybody.
Though changes in the rock industry portended progress, the Black Music Association President believed black artists still had a long way to go. “All sad as it is, in 1984, we still live in a racist society. Blacks are still in the minority, we’re still categorized, we still have separate black charts, separate radio stations“, said Griffey. “Thank God for them; without them, black artists would never get an opportunity. Really though, it comes down to the color of the money, not the people,” he adds, “and kids want to hear black music. That’s the bottom line”.
THE VICTORY TOUR PRODUCTION
The Jacksons’ Victory Tour was seen as the messiest organized of rock history. A few dates were announced, but no one could provide a nary iteration with a start and an end. It all started in November 1983 when promoter Don King, specializing in big boxing matches, announced his journey during a press conference. Michael only opened his mouth to say that he had nothing to say.
There already felt that between the two men, there was not crazy love. Don King’s total lack of experience in concerts quickly led the Jacksons to contact other organizers.
It was finally Check Sullivan who won the deal by guaranteeing the Jacksons a profit of 38 million dollars, twelve and a half paid in advance. Definitely an irrefutable offer. On his side, Don King was not completely out thanks to a contract he had with Michael Jackson’s parents. MJ declared that the tour would have been his last one with his brothers and also specified that he was doing it only to help his family, who had financial problems. The last rumors of that time were that Michael and his father no longer speak to each other; for the brothers, they barely hid their frustration at not even being considered a sort of add-value.
This tour certainly was the most anticipated in the history of the show. It was announced badly and especially smelled bad on the money plan. The method used almost looked like a hold-up.
You can judge yourself: to get a ticket, you had to send a money order (not a check) of one hundred and twenty dollars corresponding to the price of four tickets because that was how you had to buy: four tickets; if you were in five, you had to buy eight. Moreover, if you had the good fortune to be drawn by lot from among the requests for seats, you received your tickets by post, but those who were not drawn by fortune would have never had the tickets. The money was encashed by the organizers, placed in the bank ( to grow a little interest), and finally paid off weeks later. It was calculated that the interest on the money thus placed would bring in another 10 million dollars to the Jacksons.
True that America is a country that loves celebrating financial successes, but that was exaggerated. And what about our Peter Pan? Was he a raptor-like the others? Nothing at all. Jackson knew all and suffered from it. Although he was the superstar of superstars, he did not control the financial organization. He had only one voice during the family votes, and he was outvoted by the rest of the family, who saw perhaps his last big blow.
During the 1984 press conference in Kansas City, Michael found a way to turn the tide probably against all odds. He approached the microphone, and he talked about Ladonna Jones, a fan who had written to him to tell him that because of the system of selling tickets to his concerts, she wouldn’t be able to see him because her parents were not that rich to afford the sum. “How can someone like you be so selfish and interested? ”she added. “As a result,” said Michael, ” I demand to the organizers to end as fast as possible this practice. Also, I want to signal that I will give in charity all the money I will own from this tour”. He puts away his papers, smiles at the audience, and left immediately without answering anyone’s questions.
The tour consisted of 55 amazing shows throughout 1984. Each Jackson show required over 1500 workers, with a stage design that required five days and 240 people to erect the Stage itself that is 90 feet (or seven stories) tall. One hundred forty feet wide and another 90 feet deep. Inside there were five huge elevators operated by 20 technicians. It is estimated that each Victory show ate up three times the power used to generate any previous musical event, including Woodstock. The tour traveled with two giant generators, which together provided 18000 amps of electricity. That’s enough for a small city. The sound system designed by a top-notch engineering group and Randy Jackson was consistent with the rest of the tour set up BIG.
The hanging equipment alone weighed 65000 lbs and included 240 custom-built speakers cabinets and 2200 light. The band, consisting of Tito, Jermaine, Randy, and four backing musician, used a total of 24 keyboards, most of which were pre-programmed polyphonic synthesizers, plus an auto designed Yamaka drum, bass, and guitars. In addition to the Jackson and their band, there were a half dozen robotic creatures affectionately called The Kreetons, who were shipped from city to city in 3000 crates.
For those sitting at the top of the track, a huge video screen was mounted above the Stage, enabling every seat in the venue a clear view of the action. Four cameramen and a director worked out of the small television studio erected below the Stage. The Jackson entourage needed 22 computers to keep everything in order and seven high powered ones to execute the show. This combined a mere 375 tons fitted neatly in 24 huge semi-tractor trailers, covering over 6000 miles from the tour start in July through to its finish in December.
THE JACKSON AXES
A machine gun, a butterfly, a black widow spider, a large amp man head…no, these were not props on Stage with the Jacksons; they were Jermaine Jackson’s actual shapes Yamaka BB3000 bass bodies. Developed in conjunction with the Cinema City Studios and Guitar Lab of Costa Mesa, the instruments were based upon Jermaine’s own design idea.
Jermaine was the only Jackson to get creative with his ax designs, and brother Tito’s played the guitar known as “the Jackson slagger.” Using the neck from a Yamaka SBG 3000 guitar, the body of “The slagger” is shaped like a huge baseball glove, with a ball in the pocket. The glove is made of genuine leather, while the neck is a bat-like wood grain pattern. Though not as visually arresting as their guitars and basses, the band keyboards were startling in terms of sheer numbers. Randy Jackson played both a Yamaka DXI-FM digital synthesizer and a KXI hand-held remote keyboard.
Supporting keyboardists Pat Leonard, Jal Winding, and Rory Kaplan alternated between 11 DX7 FM digital keyboard synthesizers, a GS1 FM digital keyboard, and a C7 grand piano, joined together by MIDI.
Drummer Jonathan Moffett used a Yamaka Power Series double bass drum kit comprising two 24 x 16 kicks, six rack toms (form eight to sixteen inches). Moffett cymbals were Zildjian. All of the above were mixed throughout Yamaka MC consoles with Yamaka R1000 reverb. Backstage and in their hotel rooms, The Jacksons practiced and composed with Yamaka PF15 electric pianos MT44 4 channel multitrack cassette recorders, and RX15 rhythm machines.
Apart from the organization’s initial mess, the Jacksons Victory Tour with the 6 brothers playing together has been considered a true gem. Not to mention that it generated an equally wonderful album that sold over 7 million copies worldwide and went 2-time platinum.
Even if many consider the Victory Tour as a “Thriller tour,” it’s much more viable the idea that Michael Jackson’s solo tour project was not ready. It took almost three more years before his first (and actually, if it were for him, it would last) tour came to light.