On this day 40 years ago, Motown Legend/Singer/Songwriter/Producer/Arranger Michael Jackson had finally shed his bubble gum/child star image with the release of his classic breakthrough album “Off The Wall.” The album not only became a hit, it also helped him transform into a serious adult recording artist and showed the world of what he would have to offer as a musician. During his tenure with Motown, MJ had released several solo albums while recording with his brothers as a member of The Jackson 5ive, but during the mid 1970’s, Michael and several of his brothers were itching to write and produce their own material and Motown did every thing to immunize their condition to grow. The group decided to leave Motown and sign with Epic Records which prompted Motown to sue them for breach of contract and prevent them from using The Jackson 5ive name. The group rename themselves The Jacksons and linked up with Philly International duo Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff to produce their debut non-Motown self-titled album “The Jacksons” along with the follow up “Goin’ Places” with the former reaching gold status and featuring songs written by Michael including “Blues Away” and “Style of Life” (co-written with Tito). In 1978, Michael and his father/manager Joseph met with the executives to speak about the production of their next album. They wanted to be more in charge of the writing and producing and their argument was simple: Gamble & Huff gave us their best shot, but we can do better. Seeing how the group’s self-penned and produced single “Different Kind of Lady” was doing on the Disco charts, the label granted their request and their album “Destiny” went multi-platinum and scored the classic “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” which also went platinum. Written by Michael and brother Randy who had replaced Jermaine, the single became a Top 10 Pop, R&B, Disco and Dance hit and a favorite among fans and artist including Dancehall Reggae artist Shaggy who sampled the classic for his hit “Dance & Shout.” The success of Destiny gave Michael the inspiration to release his 1st solo album as an adult and like “Destiny”, “Off The Wall” became a hit and scored many hits including “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, “Rock With You,” “Off The Wall” and “She’s Out of My Life” becoming top 10 pop hits. MJ became the 1st artist to score 4 top 10 Pop hits from one album and his self-penned classic “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” became a # 1 Pop, R&B, Disco and Dance hit along with the follow up “Rock With You” which was also became the 1st # 1 hit of the 1980’s. The album also featured MJ’s underrated radio hit and classic “I Can’t Help It” another fan favorite which was written by family friends and former label mates Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene, the last Supreme who’s mother Vivian was recruited to be one of MJ’s sister Janet’s tutors. “I Can’t Help It” began to connect with a new generation of fans thanks to sampling. Hip-Hop trio De La Soul sampled the classic for their hit “Break of Dawn” while R&B quartet Portrait sampled the classic for their debut single “Here We Go Again.” Singer/Songwriter/Producer Pebbles covered the tune on her 1995 album “Straight From The Heart” and while it wasn’t released as a single, many fans and critics praised Girlfriend for doing a wonderful job making the song her own and giving it an updated feel. Since his passing, many artist have covered the tune including Maysa and Ralph Tresvant MJ’s classic “Rock With You” has also become a fan favorite. It still gets spins on radio and at parties and the tune was covered by Singer Brandy and Rapper Heavy D on Quincy Jones’ 1995 album “Q’s Jook Joint” which went platinum and while Brandy’s rendition wasn’t released as a single, it became another fan favorite and helped MJ reach a new generation of fans. Rappers Mase & Lil’ Cease sampled MJ’s Grammy winning classic “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” for their hit “Cheat On You.” Singer/Songwriter Ginuwine recorded his version of MJ’s “She’s Out of My Life” for his 2nd album “100% Ginuwine” and while I enjoy his work, I wasn’t pleased with his rendition he recorded, but his live performances of the song was much better. There’s been reports that Singer/Actress/Producer/Author/Beauty Queen Vanessa Williams recorded her rendition of the classic retitled “He’s Out of My Life” for Q’s Jook Joint album. but her rendition hasn’t been released. Singer/Songwriter/Producer and label mate Mariah Carey sampled “Off The Wall” for her single “I’m That Chick” on her 2008 album “E=MC” while Rapper/Radio Host Hollie Wood also sampled “Off The Wall” for his MJ tribute single.
The reason why “Off The Wall” became the classic that it is was due to Michael recording Disco and Dance music. By the early 1970’s the genre of Disco began to flood the radio stations and while many Pop and Soul artists didn’t like the genre, many of them embraced the sound and it helped them enlarge their fan bases. In his memoirs “Moonwalk,” MJ wrote about how Disco helped him and his brothers enter the adult market and helped them grow as writers and producers. While many Disco artist used strings and percussion, Michael decided to add other elements and genres to his sound and style including Classical, Funk, Soul, and Gospel which added additional layers to his sound.
Another reason for the success of “Off The Wall” was Michael teaming with legendary Producer/Conductor Quincy Jones. Michael and Quincy had met on the movie set of “The Wiz” which Q was scoring and producing the soundtrack. During a taping, MJ was having problem pronouncing a word and Q whispered the correct way to pronounce the word. Afterwards he introduced himself and the 2 became fast friends. They both loved all types of music and when it came time for MJ to record his adult solo album he called Q for advice on who to work with. Q gave him a list of potential names, but also told him the pros and cons of working with them. Q suggested that he would produce his album and MJ was shocked and excited. “Quincy knows Los Angeles more than Mayor Tom Bradley” MJ wrote in his memoirs “Moonwalk” MJ was excited about working with Q, but Epic, his management team and the industry wasn’t. MJ was told that Quincy was too Jazzy and wasn’t hip and he hadn’t a hit in years. The label suggested that MJ work with Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire and re-team with Gamble & Huff. MJ wasn’t going for it and in addition to reassuring his parents that things would be great, he also told his label that he was working with Quincy and his decision was final. Sensing how serious their client was, they gave him their blessing and it paid off. Not only did “Off The Wall’ become a hit, the album sold over 10 million copies and saved the staff at Epic from getting pink slips. Instead they received raised and Christmas bonuses. “How’s that for Jazz?” Q wrote in his 2001 memoirs.
Another reason for Off The Wall’s success? Michael’s songwriting. Since leaving Motown, Michael began to write songs with his brothers, but on Off The Wall, MJ had the change to really show how good his pen game was. His self penned classic “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” showed his ability to write songs that had universal themes including romance, empowerment and encouragement. In fact his mother Katherine thought that he was writing about sex and in her memoirs My Family The Jacksons she wrote how her son told her that if you think dirty than the song will be dirty to you. His self-penned classic shows that has the gift to write songs that you can come up with your own conclusion and theories. MJ’s 2nd solo self-penned classic “Working Day And Night” showed Michael’s ability to write songs about relationships and deceptive women. A common theme he would write about throughout the rest of his career. The song which is a favorite of Valerie Simpson and was sampled by MC Hammer and Will Smith speaks of a man who is constantly working overtime to please his woman with material items yet she refuses to show him love and affection and leads him to come to a conclusion that she’s must be seeing another guy on the side. “Get On The Floor” was one of the 1st songs that MJ co-wrote with another artist besides his brothers. MJ had co-wrote this classic with Louis Johnson a member of The Johnson Brothers who had scored a huge hit with their classic “Stomp” also produced by Q. In an interview published on bassplayer.com the late musician spoke about how the creative union for the song came about. “I was in my car after a session playing a tape I’d make at home of some songs and bass ideas. Michael came out to say good bye and he heard this particular part. He said’ Man, that’s bad-can I write a song around it?” Whenever journalist asked MJ about his songwriting, he would also speak about his favorite instruments being strings and bass. Many of his songs would have feature strong bass lines and when he embarked on his solo tours, MJ always hired talented, funky and strong bassists.
Another reason for Off The Wall’s success. Michael’s growth as a vocalist. When he started out singing as a child, he was a boy soprano, but when he began to hit puberty, his voice began to mature and he became known as a tenor. Michael was known for singing in his high register, but he also began to sing in mid and low range and he began to perform vocal hiccups more often. He also came up with a trademark riff of hee-hee-hee.
Those are Da-Professor’s observations of why Michael Jackson’s album “Off The Wall” became successful. He was able to finally shed his bubble gum image and make a smooth transition into a talented Adult recording artists who would continue to break musical ground as a singer, songwriter, producer and arranger.
This article is dedicated to the Legacy & Memory of Michael Joseph Jackson my idol who I still miss to this day.