While last weeks blog focused on Michael Jackson’s influence on the music stars of today and the reason why they decided to pursue a career in music and dance, I wanted to discuss who were the performers that inspired and influenced Michael Jackson?
Michael grew up listening to and watching Motown, the Rat Pack and musicals. He has R&B and soul in his blood. He was influenced by performers from all forms of entertainment making tributes in his songs and dance to the following – James Brown, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr, Gene Kelly, Diana Ross, Marcel Marceau, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Bob Fosse, The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Chuck Berry, The Temptations, Etta James, Ray Charles and Mavis Staples.
Michael’s biggest influence and his favourite performer was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Michael was blown away by James’ energy and charisma on stage. He loved the way James danced, the way he so effortlessly moved his feet when he would perform. As a child, Michael would watch James on television, eagerly trying to learn his dance steps. He would get very angry when the camera man wouldn’t show James’ feet.
“When I saw him move I was mesmerized. I’ve never seen a performer perform like James Brown and right then and there I knew that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
He performed with his idol in 1983 when Brown called him on stage to dance to his song.
He presented Brown with a BET Lifetime Achievement award in 2003 (see picture above) and spoke at his funeral in 2006 saying “James Brown was my greatest inspiration. Ever since I was a small child, no more than like six years old, my mother would wake me no matter what time it was, if I was sleeping, no matter what I was doing, to watch the television to see the master at work.”
Jackson, who had a thorough knowledge of the movie musical, revered Fred Astaire, star of Top Hat, Swing Time and the Towering Inferno. He records in his memoir how thrilled he was when Astaire praised him. He dedicated his 1988 biography Moonwalk to Astaire. The old master even invited him over to his house, where Jackson taught the moonwalk to him. Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” resembles Astaire’s musical “Band Wagon” from several moves to the similarity of the famous white jacket.
Following the 1983 performance of Billie Jean, Astaire called Jackson and said, “I watched it last night, and I taped it, and I watched it again this morning. You’re a helluva mover. You put the audience on their ASS last night!”
Astaire spoke fondly of Jackson before his death “I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael”
Undoubtedly, one aspect of Michael Jackson’s deep emotional identification with Charlie Chaplin was his shared experience of a pre-maturely terminated childhood. Jackson saw himself in Chaplin. Michael spent time in Charlie Chaplin’s home in Switzerland while recording his “Blood on the Dancefloor” album.
He stated “If I could work with anybody, it would be Charlie Chaplin who I love so much”
“You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That’s what makes a clown great. You can see he’s hurting behind the masquerade. He’s something else externally. Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone.”
Michael released one of his favourite songs by Charlie Chaplin “Smile” in 1995.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Part of the Rat Pack with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, he became known as Mister Show Business and one of the greatest entertainers ever.
Michael idolised his singing and dancing and on Sammy’s 60th anniversary special he told Sammy, he wouldn’t be where he is today without his help. That is why he sang this tribute song to Sammy on that night.
Sammy Davis Jr. also paid tribute to Michael singing “Bad” and telling the audience the King of Pop was “more than a friend, he’s like a son”.
“I’ve known him since he was six years old and I’ve watched the growth in the man and how he’s grown as a performer, he’s fantastic, I don’t think he’s scratched the surface of where he’s gonna wind up in this business, it’s frightening to see him on stage”
Mavis Staples is an American rhythm and blues and gospel singer. She was part of the Staple’s Sisters from the 70’s and is still performing.
What many people don’t know is that Michael’s “shamone” is actually a tribute to Mavis’ song “I’ll Take You There” where she said that word in the song. He was clearly mesmerised by her.
Jackson shared how much in awe he was of the performer, how “he would defy the laws of gravity.” The two developed a friendship over the last several decades.
He “learned a lot” from Marceau, Jackson said that his Moonwalk step was inspired by Marceau. “He was a great guy. I used to go see Marcel Marceau all of the time, before Off The Wall,” he said, with a smile. “I used to sneak in and sit in the audience and watch how he would defy the laws of gravity, like he was stepping on air.”
Jackie Wilson was a Motown singer and one of the main influences of black pop’s transition from R&B into soul. He is probably best known for his song “Higher and Higher”.
Michael dedicated his album of the year for “Thriller” at the 1984 Grammy’s by saying “In the entertainment business, there are leaders and there are followers. And I just want to say that I think Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer…I love you and thank you so much.”
It is clear how all of these icons of the entertainment industry had influenced Michael Jackson’s performances. He brought them all together and onto the biggest stages across the world. Every time you hear or see him he is bringing these influences to life.