Don Cornelius Interviewing Michael:
When the news broke today of Don Cornelius’s passing, it seemed strangely appropriate somehow that the CNN article posted in tribute to him spent almost as much space talking about young Michael Jackson as it did Cornelius himself. Quoting heavily from Cornelius’s own Times Magazine tribute to Michael in 2009, today’s CNN write-up served to underscore the entwined relationship between Michael Jackson, the Jackson 5, Soul Train, and, of course, the man who started it all.
Tonight, in memory of Don Cornelius, I’m taking a little trip down memory lane with some of the highlights of Michael’s many Soul Train appearances, and also, Don Cornelius’s full 2009 Times Magazine interview.
I Want You Back:
With A Child’s Heart:
Time Magazine Interview, 2009. Don Cornelius Remembers The Young Michael Jackson:
The word got around that these kids from Gary, Ind. — next door to Chicago, where I was working as an announcer — were amazing. A lot of the local recording artists were being told, “If these Jackson 5 kids are on the show that you’re contemplating [doing], don’t book the show because they will kick your ass.” That’s when Michael was 6 or 7. I got to know their father Joe Jackson accidentally — or I sought him out, I can’t remember; it’s been a long time. Most of the guys I worked with at the radio station did some moonlighting as stage-show promoters, and I found a venue and decided to do one. Joe was nice enough to give me the group. That’s how I met them and first got to know Michael. He was about 8.
Michael epitomized the incredible lead singer that most major groups tend to have: the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, the Commodores with Lionel Richie, the Temptations with Eddie and Dennis. Joe Jackson had figured out that that was the formula: he had the spectacular lead singer who could do every step that James Brown ever demonstrated. Michael was just a killer onstage. That’s the first thing you noticed. He knew his way around a stage; he commanded the whole operation. (See Motown’s top five songs.)
He had a star quality, even as an 8-year-old. He was such a lovable individual. If you were backstage, you saw the women who happened to be on the same show, and they just kind of adopted Michael. They were always hugging and kissing and rubbing him — it went on and on, more than almost any other kid could possibly bear. I’m sure Michael got tired of it, but he never complained. They were all over him. As time went on, he sort of fell in love with Diana Ross —her music and her singing — and I think it was mutual. She fell in love with him also. He was still only 9 or 10.
With a guy who’s that young, you don’t try to project how good he’s gonna be ’cause he’s only 4 ft. tall. You’re looking at a small person who can do anything he wants to do onstage — with his feet or his voice. To get to the level of people who can do that, you’re talking about James Brown as a performer. You’re talking about Aretha Franklin as a singer. Or Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway — people who were renowned for being able to do whatever they wanted to do with their voices. Michael was like that as a kid. As he began to evolve, you could hear Diana in his singing. You could hear Stevie Wonder. You could hear Marvin Gaye. You could hear Smokey. Once he put it all together, you wouldn’t hear anybody imitating him, because he just had too much going for him as a singer. He was the man. The younger guys coming up used him as the standard. If there’s anyone to use as the standard, to shoot at, to compare yourself with, it’s Michael Jackson.
And so yet one more chapter of the book closes. RIP Don Cornelius.