By Richard Williams
Michael Jackson may have spent his last years mutating into an ever more freakish version of himself, eventually becoming a prize exhibit in the celebrity zoo, but under the outlandish surface was a singer who had come by his fame not via mere eccentricity or a stroke of luck, but through a genuinely remarkable talent that deserved to conquer the world.
For all his tragic flaws as a human being, Jackson could legitimately be seen as the greatest entertainer of his generation, the natural successor to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Soul music was the idiom from which he emerged, and disco was the vehicle that powered his solo career, but he was more than that suggests. The slender young man in spats who danced to the whip-smart rhythms of Billie Jean and Beat It, and crooned tear-stained ballads such as She’s Out Of My Life, seemed to span the modern equivalents of many timeless idioms, from vaudeville to torch songs.
First and last, however, he was a great singer. When the Jackson 5 burst on to the music scene at the beginning of the 1970s, Jackson was barely out of short trousers and his singing on I Want You Back, ABC and The Love You Save, their first hits, was that of a hyperactive juvenile lead. Listening to I’ll Be There, a quiet ballad that gave them their fourth hit, however, it was possible to detect the signs of something extraordinary.
His careful phrasing, and in particular his terminal vibrato, showed a maturity extraordinary for a boy barely into his teenage years.
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