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I got a text from a friend yesterday morning. She’s young, beautiful and talented, so young that she was really a baby when George Michael rose to prominence. She wanted me to know that she thought he was corny in a New Kids On The Block kinda way. She had no idea how hurtful she was being. When a true Soul Man dies all of us in the community feel the loss. She knows a lot about music so her opinions are usually informed, but in this case, she just hasn’t been around long enough to know that George Michael was one of the most special artists who broke through during the MTV era. Michael benefitted from the star making power of MTV and along with Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club and a few others, he became a poster boy for the music channel’s ability to make household names out of pop stars.

My friends Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson and Q-Tip all shared their condolences and shock over the superstar’s loss through social media. My old collaborators from the New Jack Swing days, Al B.Sure! and Keith Sweat paid tribute on their Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. Because you see, George Michael was a Black Thing.

I first heard George Michael’s music in 1984. Well, truthfully, I’d heard him just a bit before, but I started to pay attention in 1984 when Michael was fronting kiddie pop duo Wham. At that time, his appearance was more important than his sound, but Wham’s second album featured an anthemic slice of slick working class pop funk called “Everything She Wants”. Michael’s gruff pleading with a girlfriend who wanted more than the narrator could give had an appeal to a twenty something kid on the hustle with, two jobs, a demanding girlfriend, and an ambition to rise to the heights of the music industry. I loved that track.

Soul Music had taken a hit that year. In the spring, Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed, and I was walking around in a daze, but I kept pushing on. I was working in a small but important independent record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinyl Mania was the name of the store, and it did a brisk business in imported, independent and domestic major label dance music that was driven, mostly, by what underground overlord Larry Levan was spinning at The Garage, the Village hotspot that influenced two subsequent generations of dance club culture around the world. That was my part time job. For a day job, I worked at ASCAP identifying songs and their uses. The import 12″ single on “Everything She Wants” was a hot seller for us. On WBLS, the heritage Black FM outlet owned and controlled by the Inner City Broadcasting Group, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had a grip on progressive Black listeners, but a threat arose to his dominance as 98.7 Kiss FM began to reach out for Frankie’s younger listeners by playing early hits from the fledgling Hip Hop industry. Frankie rocked “Everything She Wants”.

Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC, and he’d let the police run amok; they’d killed an unarmed Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, and a Black grandmother named Elanor Bumpers was shotgunned to death in her own apartment. Ronald Regan was in the White House, and he oversaw sinful deregulation of the financial and banking sectors that resulted in the Savings and Loan industry being gutted, and he ignored the rising body count from AIDS until it was almost too late. Funding for programs to help the poor, the vulnerable and the victims of AIDS was slowing to a trickle that never quite made it as far down as it had been advertised to reach.

It was with all of this as a backdrop that young George Michael – a working class kid from Margaret Thatcher’s England and a proud son of disco – began his assent in the game. Yes, disco: the derivative of funk and soul that sprouted up out of New York’s Black, Latin and Gay underground and became the music of the outsider looking for a way in. This often derided music was perfect for Michael’s worldview, because he was an unabashed celebrant of Black Music and his funkiness was obscured by his looks, his glibness and a uniquely potent gift for pop song craft.

While Michael was experiencing the peak of his success he was never fully appreciated. Much like the early Beatles – Wham/Michael was dismissed as a disposable pop group for young girls, but “Everything She Wants” sent a signal to the R&B and Black Pop markets that this kid was coming to get his and that he would be disruptive while doing it. Later, when his song writing became more introspective, he ran afoul of corporate politics, and he rebelled against the big money string pullers who would have had him release the same formulaic ditties that made him a phenomenon. Michael was thought to be too pretty and too slick with his writing to be taken seriously and his deep connection to the Black Music tradition was overlooked.

Before the tabloid headlines, the police entrapment, the forced outing, the near death accidents and trials with addiction, George Michael suffered the burden of the beautiful when he split with Andrew Ridgeley, his Wham bandmate, and embarked on an historic run as a solo artist with the release of the title track from “Faith” a rockabilly workout that smashed around the globe. If you only saw the video or didn’t get the album you may have missed “Monkey” or “Hard Day” the two funk joints on the album, or the subtle and soulful begging on “Father Figure”.

But I was in the Black Music business that George Michael was a factor in, and I witnessed this: Grandmaster Flash destroying a dance floor at the original location for The China Club – when it was a hangout for the best session players in The City – by cutting up the bass line from “Freedom 90” back and forth. Regional representatives from two major labels (one of whom had gotten Madonna’s “Material Girl” added to rotation) arguing with the PD from Kiss FM on the merits of adding Jam and Lewis’ remix of Michael’s “Monkey” to the station’s playlist, and the PD ignoring their objections to put the fifth or sixth single from “Faith” on the Urban powerhouse’s airwaves. The dance floor of The Garage packed and getting busy to Wham’s “Everything She Wants”. Stevie Wonder crooning a duet with Michael from the stage of the “World Famous” Apollo Theater. George Michael performing all covers including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” backed by The Sounds of Blackness at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, George Michael with the Patrice Rushen loops, the Gap Band interpolations, the James Brown samples, the Aretha Franklin duet, the Mary J. Bilge duet, the Stevie Wonder covers and big churchy choruses that screamed freedom out of radios and televisions was a Black Thing. The older he got the blacker he sounded. He became an avatar for Gay Pride and a vessel for those who remembered when Soul Music was a means for protest. He used the fashion business to promote his sound by casting Christy Turlington, Eva Herzigova, Tatijana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Beverly Peele, and Hip Hop’s favorite dinner date, Naomi Campbell in his videos. He shone a bright light on the AIDS crisis and gave away tons of money to charitable causes. He kept it funky while doing it all and reminded us to listen without prejudice. I loved his music. I do not think that his dying exactly ten years to the day that we lost James Brown was coincidental. He’s probably somewhere trying to show James how to rock one of those slick Italian suits that he used to wear. He made a mighty contribution to this thing of ours. For this I am grateful.

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I’d been to Florida on a business trip, and right before that, to New York for the pre-party stuff for that year’s MTV Awards. Def Jam was still being run by Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons. Rick Rubin had returned to the fold via a label deal, and The Bowery Bar was a location where they held a welcome back Rick launch party. I went with a date, and the Hollywood billionaire, Ted Field. On the way in, we stopped and chatted with an exiting Chris Rock who mentioned that the party wouldn’t have been real if I hadn’t shown up – nice guy that Rock.

We stayed briefly, and then jumped into the back of a limo and headed to a party that Diddy was throwing at Tao, the Asian fusion joint on the East Side of Manhattan. They were all there; Pharrell, Ice-T, Sylvia Rhone, Dame Dash, Rush, Gary Gray – a strong slice of the Urban entertainment player community. If a bomb had gone off in that room that night, Jim Jones would have run shit for a decade. Just another night of fun and networking in the Apple.

I had to get up and catch a plane the next morning. I went to Orlando to meet with the soon to be disgraced kiddie mogul, Lou Pearlman and signed an act that he’d developed. The next day, I took a train to Miami and signed a couple of Dirty South MC’s called No Good. I spent the night on South Beach at The Tides, woke up and got a plane home.

I was living here in Charlotte, and preparing to move to New York to run the East Coast office of ARTISTdirect Records. I slept well, and early the next morning, I got a call from a friend in New York who told me to turn on the television, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, followed her instructions, and turned on the TODAY Show. I was barely awake, but I saw one plane jutting out from the building it had attacked, and smoke coming from the hole it had created. Moments later, another plane crashed into the other tower and the in studio announcers lost it. So did I. Tears streamed down my face as I watched in disbelief and horror. It’s been thirteen years, but I will never forget the day that terror became more than something that you watched on television. It became a reality show that changed the city I love forever.

For Rebecca, Sylvia, Summer, Caress and the fallen

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I haven’t written in weeks. My plan was to return with a blog that celebrated Black Music Month, and shared my impressions of the latest Maxwell CD, but as in most cases over the last 30 years, Michael Jackson will receive the higher billing. Maxwell can wait; his new project is butter; it will get its just due soon. Stay up.

As I’m writing this, it’s been a little more than 36 hours since TMZ broke the devastating news of Michael Jackson’s death. Tears have been shed, e-mails, IM chats and phone calls sharing mutual condolences with close friends and fam have provided the needed outlet to both reminisce and mourn. Amongst my friends and extended family, the reaction has ranged from nostalgia, to hurt and shock. How could such a voice be silenced at such a young age?

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A FAMILY AT WORK

Ironically, The King leaves us in a year that coincides with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Motown, the dream factory where he was groomed to be the most important recording artist that America has ever produced. I’ve sampled some writing on his life of great accomplishments and squandered opportunities. I’ve watched as much cable coverage as I can stand. Earlier in the week, MSNBC was playing in the background; they’d gone wall-to-wall King Of Pop since Thursday night’s dinner hour. An MSNBC correspondent was periodically filing reports from in-front of the LA County coroner’s office. She interrupted a roundtable discussion on MJ with the breaking news that there wasn’t a final autopsy report yet. For the purpose of this segment, the concept of “news” was being liberally interpreted.

Alleged advisors, confidants, friends, and former business associates were wallowing in the lurid muck of prescription drugs, self-mutilation, child abuse, court cases, media manipulation, surrogate parenting, alleged child molestation, and financial ruin. Some had that glazed-over expression that seems to be a requirement of ill-prepared guests taking part in a tabloid-driven celebrity wake. In order to adequately fill the news-cycle, producers have scrambled for “gets” that have dragged the discourse down to its lowest-common denominator. They’re all offering recollections about their association with a “legend”. In life, as well as death, stories concerning any aspect of the Michael-Jackson-phenomena all but guarantee ratings, serving to remind us that, despite his eccentricities, Jackson was a beloved, cross-generational figure in the Black community. We take a dim view of exploitative media coverage of his tragic, and untimely, death.

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The coverage lacks a certain something. Unbelievably, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has related a story about what it was actually like seeing a picture of the J5 cut out from “Right On” magazine, and taped to the bedroom wall of seemingly every young girl you knew or were related to. No one appeared to have had the experience of witnessing a seamless, killer performance of a J5 hit on “Soul Train” or Ed Sullivan’s must-see Sunday night showcase. Apparently no one had ever heard “Rockin’ Robin” blaring from every possible radio station encountered during the summer of 1972. There didn’t seem to be any testimony of a family outing to see the young King concertize and dedicate his performance of “With A Child’s Heart” to his fellow icon and label mate, Stevie Wonder, as the blind genius lay at death’s doorstep in a Durham hospital.

Not one “connection” interviewed could attest to the ultimate power of the Swahili-sung break in “Wanna Be Starting Something” or that track’s ability to work a packed dance floor in to a frenzy. Not one could relate a tale of the feel of new love experienced as “The Lady In My Life” quietly played on a home stereo. No one spoke about the goosebumps felt the first time the pattern of the kick, snare, high hat, bass and synth locked in underneath the strings of “Billie Jean” and then the awe of seeing the footsteps of The King light up those sidewalk sections in that first breakout video. No one spoke of the pride felt when The King broke the color-line at MTV with that same clip.

Also on Thursday, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. led the US Congress in a moment of silence, I guess he remembered the Operation PUSH benefits at which the band of brothers could be counted on to appear. Or maybe he was remembering the mysterious Atlanta child-murders from the early ’80’s that prompted a benefit by the Jacksons to raise money and point the spotlight on the F.B.I.’s inability to find a killer following twenty young black men who were reported murdered.

The only people I’m certain had knowledge of these experiences, and other variations, were the ones whom I saw gathered at the UCLA Medical Center for the spontaneous vigil; the Times Square pedestrians who had fond, rich memories of hearing “P.Y.T.” when it was newly released, the crowd who gathered beneath the marquee at the world-famous Apollo Theater, singing “Rock With You”, in unison… I’m certain they knew; I saw it in their eyes and heard in their voices. They knew how much joy The King had given them, and they were grateful.

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A YOUNG HARLEM RESIDENT AT THURSDAY NIGHTS CELEBRATION
PERHAPS WORKING TOWARD THE DAY WHEN HE CAN LIGHT THE
SIDEWALK BENEATH HIS FEET (photo courtesy of Sareenah Davis)

As a guest, I wouldn’t be of much use to the type of coverag I’ve watched. I never had a meal with Michael Jackson, never worked with him, never had a phone conversation with him. But I feel as though I may have known him better than many of the so-called experts I’ve been watching. You see, I knew him in the way that was most important: his music. Oddly, none of the other angles, stories, or guests would be of importance at all, if not for all that music that was so ubiquitous.

Thanks to the seemingly endless choices I’ve found on YouTube (where the past does live forever), the Black Magic that marked most of Michael’s 40-year career as an entertainer has been posted on my two Facebook accounts. With each clip seen, or song heard – vivid, sharp, and bittersweet memories flood my consciousness. The Jackson 5 performing a medley of their hits with Cher, who quickly caught the feeling, sharing lead vocals with The King. Without anything to blame but the boogie, she soon started rocking a little J5-style choreography, as well. In the clip, she is adapting like a fish to water. I’m reminded that she hit it big with the soulful working-girl anthem, “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves.”

In another clip, the young brothers are making an appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” and The King steps into an uncertain and mostly-white audience to gain votes for his campaign to be elected King Of Pop. In an excerpt from “The Carol Burnette Show,” her second banana, Vicki Lawrence, was schooled on how to “express yourself” to the strains of “Body Language” the under-appreciated, lame-duck first single from their last Motown release “Moving Violation.” By the time this last record dropped, it was clear that the bulk of the family would be moving on to CBS Records and Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, didn’t put his best, good-faith effort forward in support of the single. But still, it was dope!

Also found was the historic rendition of “Billie Jean” from the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, “Today Tomorrow and Forever”. In the heat of the moment, The King accents his track date performance of the classic cautionary tale of a paternity suit with the simple, yet revolutionary, idea of walking backwards to the beat. With that stride of genius, he propelled the Black Music game forward and took all of us with him. Once again, the reliable healing power of soul is doing its thing. Again, I am beginning to feel inspired.

I only met Michael Jackson once. We were both invited guests at a party that Diddy threw at the home of West Coast billionaire Ron Burkle. The MTV Movie Awards had been taped earlier in the evening, and Diddy did what Diddy does: he took advantage of a networking opportunity and threw a Diddy-fest. The evening was A-list all the way, and there were more than a few headliners in attendance. A film producing acquaintance, Mark Burg, was in the place to be. He was accompanied by his date, the late Farrah Fawcett, and he introduced us. While the two of us spoke, my old friend Brett Ratner motioned me over to his table to be introduced to The King. Mark and Farrah saw the signal and followed me suit. I thought it was odd that “Angel” and The King hadn’t met before, but I was pleased to have been a part of these two icons meeting.

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THE ANGEL

When I shook his hand, The King felt frail and appeared to be medicated. We didn’t chat for long because I didn’t want to impose. He was polite, but not quite present. I excused myself and began to circulate through the rest of the party. At the time, I was surprised by The King’s lack of vitality.

Later that same summer, I was extended an invitation to Neverland, the 33-acre estate of the King, just north of Santa Barbara; the long-time aid to The King, and his family, Steve Manning, invited me. I took a date and her girlfriend; Joe Jackson’s 70th birthday was the occasion.

I’d always felt connected to Michael through his music. Soul City residents Freddie Perren, and Larry and Fonce Mizelle had been members of the crack Motown songwriting and production team that had given the J5 many of their first hits. Larry and Fonce’s youngest brother Rodney and I were schoolmates and he’d invited me to their family home on a summer’s day long ago. A wall in their living room was covered with platinum and gold RIAA album certifications. Many had been awarded for participation in the success of J5 projects. Even then, The King was lighting a path to creative success with that uniquely bright light that was produced from the biggest recording star that the world had ever known. It’s still shining. Thriller is the number one selling i-Tunes download today, 27 years after its initial release. I love the music of Michael Jackson. I just wish I had told him when I had the chance.

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Mad love to Cynthia Horner, Flo Anthony, Karen Tinsley-Farrakhan, Sandra Edwards, Valerie, Rhonda, Barry James, Tammy Lucas, Bernard Belle, The Ab, D’Angelo, Pam Hall, Suzanne DePasse, Skip Miller, Pam Lewis, Rush, T.C. Thompkins, Larkin Arnold and the Jackson family

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