Michael Jackson: a magpie, not a genius.

I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.

But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.

I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.

I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!

But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?

And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.

It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own  songs on one of his own albums.

Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.

What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.

Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.

Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.

If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.

Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.

And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.

Now – Michael Jackson.

Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.

He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.

But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.

You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?

Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?

Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.

Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?

And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …

Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.

Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.

And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.

MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.

Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.

So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.

Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.

Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.

Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.

And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)

He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.

So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.

 

20 Comments

  1. I guess Jackson became so iconic because of MTV, his videos were as important as, if not more important than, the actual records they narrated. He’d charmed everybody as a kid doing I Want You Back and ABC, wow what a voice, what a mover in such a young lad, but by ’77 his star was fairly on the wane until Sony took him and via those videos marketed him brilliantly via Off The Wall, Quincey Jones, and Temperton, allowing this slick moving, all shrieking disco king to sell millions of records. And over the years it was on TV that we watched him literally disintegrate before our eyes, every time he appeared yet another bit of his face had been cut and re-honed. He was his own reality show. But it’s the videos we actually remember when we want to enjoy Jackson, I have no idea who directed them but they were mainly responsible for what became Jacko-Mania. I saw Jacko twice at Wembley and he was ok but I felt no connection at all, and I’ve seen others at Wembley like Springsteen who really knew how to connect with an audience, no matter how enormous the crowd before him. I remember feeling rather sorry for Michael on stage, he looked very frail with his newly-cut features which the huge screens either side of the stage only underlined even more cruelly, grabbing his crotch incessantly like a kid needing a wee, and basically screeching a lot while his backing singers did most of the actual singing. When he flew off into the sky strapped to a rocket (What? It wasn’t him? No!) at the end of one of the Wembley shows, even that looked a bit pathetic, like a rag doll being carried off flailing in the wind to god knows where. (Oh, it was a rag doll flailing in the wind? Right). Michael, like Kylie, made records that were great to clean the house to, they made dusting and washing floors go so quickly as you hooted, screeched and boogied your way round the sitting room, the vacuum your willing (and rather good) dancing partner. I will always be grateful to Michael for that. He made housework so much fun.

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  2. I agree with you Paul….every word of it…Stevie Wonder has forgotten more about song writing and arranging than MJ would ever have known… and no one comes near Elvis. What he achieved in his early years was nothing short of stunning!
    People are so blinded by MJ not really knowing what made him tick…if it wasn’t for the people you mentioned I wonder just how far MJ would have gone?
    Great reading Paul -don’t stop !

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  3. MJ was chained to a treadmill wheel when he was a child. Then the Music Industry taught him how to turn the treadwheel with fancy footwork and mint gold coins – but the wheel wouldn’t turn properly without some extra artistic footwork from his more talented fellow treaders Quincy and Rod. Michael’s voice – so sweet on “I Want You Back” and “Ben” – when it matured through his teens was no better than mediocre from Off The Wall onwards.
    The shiny gold coins being minted through Michael’s treadmill spinning did not reveal him as any kind of artist beyond that of a mediocre talent who with help from some plate-spinners who could – with regular help from Quincy and Rod – make the chart-rigged one armed bandit shit out gold coins… sometimes with random JACKPOT payouts. But spinning treadmills and spinning plates and the random spinning symbols on the one armed bandit’s reels just couldn’t make Michael happy, talented or the artist he knew he wasn’t. The twisted wheels ground to a halt, the plates fell and the bandit machine stopped paying out like it used to.
    He knew he couldn’t really sing like Stevie or Otis. He knew he couldn’t really dance like Fred or Gene. He couldn’t really write songs like Rod or jarvis or Morrisey. He’d never been really happy with himself as an adult. He’d never really been able to grow up with any kind of balance beyond those weird spinning things. Michael didn’t really like how he looked and he couldn’t really sleep anymore. And he couldn’t start up that whole spinning thing and keep it going anymore. Michael’s story is a tragic one. His regular diet to deal with the anxiety, pressure and stress of 30 years of spinning were propofol, lorazepam, midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine and ephedrine.

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  4. When I said “chained” I actually meant “chained” like a slave. Michael was contracted, sold and trapped before he was old enough to understand what he was chained up to. He never knew anything else as he grew up as a young indentured servant on a contract he didn’t draw up. All his later contracts were based on the debts of the previous ones. Remember how broke Michael and all the Jacksons were – what was all that about? Eternal debt and endless legal bills.
    An Industry slave.

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    • Lizzie, from memory it happened with Thriller, and particularly the video. He was the first black artist to be featured on MTV, and of course his fans thought the video was all his own doing, from which it flowed that the music was too, and the dancing. So a pretty decent singer and performer was elevated to a level way above his pay grade (which is possibly why he was practically bankrupt before he died).

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      • That’s very interesting. I’m in my early twenties so I was never able to experience this. My whole life I was told that he was the best singer/dancer performer ever and when I go online it’s hard to find any dissent. I only recently became comfortable admitting I don’t think that way to just myself. That’s scary to me. It seems for every artists there are atleast dozens or hundreds of vocal disagreement with a sentiment but with him(and the beatles) there is almost none. It’s feels like brainwashing. No matter what evidence is presented to the contrary of him being a musical genius it’s dismissed and people even become hostile.
        I had no idea his fans were so, well…mean. They will attack any and everyone and even send death threats. The things they even say about Janet Jackson are appalling. I’m not talking about comparing the two of them in terms of talent, it’s just they hate the fact that someone from his own family is successful outside of him. He is the best thing to ever happen.How does this kind of behavior come about if it isn’t brainwashing. (This applies to most artists actually).

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  5. I see lots of posts from people who can’t stand The Beatles, Lizzie, but few dissenters regarding MJ. I can make a compelling case for The Beatles deserving respect; just as I’ve made the reverse case regarding MJ. What it comes down to is: you don’t have to feel like you have to like something or someone just because the consensus says they’re brilliant. But some just inarguably are. I know people who don’t like Beethoven, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a revolutionary composer whose music stands up 200 years later. Where The Beatles went in three and a half years – from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows – has never been topped in pop or rock music. But they wrote their own songs, conceived their own soundscapes (with the help of George Martin) and played their own instruments. MJ didn’t write most of his ‘great’ songs, and always needed Quincy Jones (and others). There’s simply no comparison.

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  6. You don’t seem to like Michael Jackson — as an artist, and maybe as an individual. Ok. No harm, no foul. Clearly, it’s well within your rights to hold that view. But there are so many errors in your argument, that I’m not sure where to begin to point them out. And the varied mistakes are not in your opinions (cause there is no such thing as a wrong opinion, naturally), but in the facts, as you present here, to form said opinions regarding his talent or lack thereof.
    As I just stumbled upon this post, again there is no real motivation to dissect it line by line, or inaccuracy by inaccuracy. I will say though, that as a professor and cultural historian, it has been made clear that no performer, artist, musician, entertainer or group therein is “inarguably” brilliant. No matter how large a consensus in favor, there will inevitably be individual cases of dissent (maybe many).
    Ultimately, the value or “greatness” of any art can always be argued; regardless of whom from it springs — be it Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, the Beatles (or its primary four members)…or even Ludwig van Beethoven. And just maybe that is the real genius in any of these oft-referenced artists — that, be it positive or negative, factual or otherwise, they continue to get us observers/consumers of their product talking…

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    • Theta, I was originally a fan of MJ, but by the time of Thriller I was beginning to worry for his mental health. After that, things just went down hill

      But liking him or not liking him is not the point. I’m not a fan of Stockhausen, but that doesn’t stop me from recognising the talent involved.

      There are no ‘errors’ in my piece. Or, if there are, you should elucidate them. I am a songwriter, singer, producer, recording artists and journalist. I’m 67 years of age, so I have seen every major development in pop music from Elvis to the present day. I was also classically trained on the piano. So my credentials are intact.

      My central point about MJ is that he needed the likes of Quincy Jones and Rob Temperton around him to provide the backdrop for his brilliance as an entertainer. He was not a great songwriter or a great musician or a producer. He was a performer. When you compare his career trajectory (in terms of his own input into the creative arc) he was a very slow developer, relying on others to provide the backdrop for his performance.

      When he did start writing, he wrote very few totally memorable and classic songs. When you compare his song output with John Lennon or Paul McCartney or George Harrison, or Bob Dylan, or even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, or Pete Townshend, you cannot possibly hold Michael Jackson up as an example of a prolific and brilliant songwriter.

      Try compiling a list of ‘great’ Michael Jackson songs – songs he wrote alone. You’ll struggle to get to double figures, if you’re being honest in your assessment. I’d love to hear from you again, if you have the time. Thanks for engaging, and for the sheer civility of your response.

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  7. Sorry just had the chance to get back to your reply. Was busy grading papers and such.

    When you say that “you cannot possibly” hold Jackson up as a prolific and brilliant songwriter, I’d say that it’s totally subjective. (And I’m assuming that when you said “you” it was a general reference and not me personally, because I haven’t labeled his songwriting in one way or the other.) But, in my way time pursuing and researching our most recent history, I’ve been a part of a great many presentations and/or discussions by those who are do try to put some objective lens on these kinds of things — and there conclusion is very different than yours. I also might had that prolific and brilliant are two completely separate entities, and one does not necessarily beget the other.

    But, actually, none of that was my original point in replying. I was simply referring to your argument as you laid out and the inconsistencies that stood out. I didn’t get into a dissection of it, because you’re not a student and I’m not grading you. And I wouldn’t hold anything on the web to the standards that I do my PhD candidates, but on the other hand, flawed argument is flawed argument. Even when we’re debating/discussing just for kicks. 🙂

    For example, what jumped out initially is that your first point is to analyze a “release” by Mr. Jackson that was never actually released by him (during this lifetime). And I understand that it was pretty much just a plot point to get the reader into the article and make it seem timely. But, you go on to draw conclusions from it regarding his expertise or creativity, or lack thereof. When ultimately there is no way to know how much or how little Jackson was even involved in the actual recording you were listening to. “By the stuff you leave on the shelf, you will be judged.” How do you/we know that what we heard is what Jackson left on the shelf? How much was it manipulated, revised, edited, etc, etc before we got a chance to listen to it? For all we know, it could have been a joke recording, a favor to a friend who really loved the original, anything. What we do know is that Mr. Jackson had more than 25 years to release this record (in whatever variation) while he was still here, and he chose not to. So, while one might say that it does nothing to add to his legacy, neither does it or should it be utilized for disservice.

    It also stood out that Quincy Jones (as producer) was brought into the debate when most of the other artists who you do consider brilliant were using incredibly skilled producers as well (as most artists do, either some or all of the time). The one album that the Beatles self-produced is the exact one that many argue is their worst (I’m not in that category, but many many are — as I’m sure you know.) George Martin is responsible for more number one/top 10 hits in the US and around the world than Quincy Jones ever was or will be.

    I have to run, but will try to check back in a lot sooner than I previously did. But I will also say that Stevie Wonder (genius that he is) did not write or really even co-write his first song at age 15 (because Berry Gordy wouldn’t let him, just as he controlled with the Jackson 5). Mr. Wonder came up with a tiny hook or riff and played it for Mr. Gordy — and then Mr. Gordy had a couple of his staff writers compose lyrics and music for it. And that was how most of the songs that Mr. Wonder has some credit on were formed, until he was 21 or so. This documentation and history of the Motown process has been well-publicized. It’s the main reason that Mr. Jackson (at age 16) asked his team to get him out of the contract with Motown and find him a new home.

    Here’s a quick excerpt about one of the songs that he wrote at 16 to get that new publishing opportunity. The song was recorded on their first Epic album when Jackson was 17:

    “Jackson’s first effort was the innocent and effervescent “Blues Away,” which would become his first credit as a professional songwriter.
    “Michael wrote that song, and I think McFadden & Whitehead and myself,” said Gamble. “He needed help with it, so we all got in the studio with him because he played piano a little bit. So when he played the song on the piano and he was telling me how he wanted it to go, I said, ‘You do it,’ and I left the studio and let him do it, and he did an excellent job!
    “I came back in when he started to overdub his voice, and he had all these great ideas about how to record his voice, like doubling his voice, doing all kinds of little ad libs and whatever. He had it all thought out in his head.”

    Don’t know if you’re familiar with the song, but I had never heard about it until I attended a music symposium several years ago. The song and Jackson’s songwriting in general is also mentioned here:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/bad-19871022

    Just some additional thoughts… 🙂

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    • Maybe I have to be a little clearer about my own credentials. From age 18 I was trained as a journalist/reporter on a music industry weekly (you will know Billboard, which was our parent). Prior to that, I had been classically trained but started performing in a pop group I formed when I was 15. I wrote my first song when i was 14. Age 24 I was recruited by CBS Records as an A&R scout but was also quickly let loose in the studio to produce major sessions with bands, solo artists and big orchestral arrangements. I later had a brief career as a performer, songwriter and producer in my own right.

      I’ve been writing about music and entertainment for just shy of 50 years.

      Now, you haven’t yet pointed up one factual error in my original piece, but you steadfastly denigrate it. You can, legitimately, bring the George Martin/Quincy Jones element into the argument. What you cannot do is deny that the first two Beatles albums were half and half Lennon/McCartney songs. as well as covers. Their third album was completely self-written.

      Jackson’s self-written output didn’t start till he’d had 10 Jackson Five albums and five solo albums. That tells us, sorry if you don’t like this, that no-one believed in him as a songwriter. Say what you like about Berry Gordy and the Motown machine, but when Stevie Wonder stood up to him, he caved. If Jackson was so fantastic, why did he not similarly stand up for himself?

      Notwithstanding, when Jackson went to Epic, he had the opportunity to demand complete control. Epic wanted Michael Jackson. So, either Jackson didn’t believe in himself as a writer, or Epic judged his efforts below par.

      Whatever, his Epic debut Off The Wall contains two and a half Jackson songs. On Thriller, he gets four out of nine songs.

      As for the word prolific – there’s no question that the word can be used objectively. Michael Jackson was not a prolific songwriter.

      As for the word brilliant – that is, admittedly, more subjective. But if you put Michael Jackson’s songs against, say, three of the Beatles, or Rogers & Hammerstein, or Irving Berlin, or Schubert or whomever you choose, there is nothing technically that marks them out as ‘brilliant’. If you wanted me to, I can dissect and deconstruct the songs comparatively with other, better constructed work.

      Whatever your position in the academic world, as a songwriter for 50-odd years, and having worked with songwriters all my working life, and having studied songwriting, I would pit my knowledge and judgement against yours any time and any place you like.

      I notice, by the way, that you left a stinging little comment on a Rolling Stone article about Prince, to the effect that Purple Rain was influenced by Thriller. So clearly, you are a massive Michael Jackson supporter. I’ve never seen Purple Rain, but if you want a definition of the word prolific, look at Prince’s output. And the man’s guitar playing – one Prince solo puts Michael Jackson in his rightful place in the lower divisions of actual musical talent (as opposed to performance and commercial success).

      Finally, Place With No Name appears to have been a track which Jackson felt the need to ask America’s permission to record, which makes it perhaps not a ‘joke’ song. The released track is neither here nor there: Jackson ‘wrote’ the ‘song’. The fact that he didn’t release it, doesn’t alter that.

      It’s interesting to me that you make this case for Michael Jackson (including the Blues Away story) but choose to denigrate Stevie Wonder’s initial writing efforts. Why would you do that? Are you suggesting that Where I’m Coming From – all Stevie/Syreeta Wright songs – was not a defining statement from an artist who had decided he was now his own man? Or that the fact he played all but two instruments on Music Of My Mind and co-produced it didn’t, achievement-wise, leave Michael Jackson in the dust?

      Stevie Wonder and Prince – now there’s a pair of preternatural talents that make actual musicians’ jaws drop. Michael Jackson never made any musicians’ jaw drop. And therein lies the difference.

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  8. I just read over what I wrote, both initially and the follow-up, and I can’t seem to find anything that would/should have prompted a need for a more detailed credential overview. I can’t see at all where I questioned anyone’s level of expertise or knowledge — and certainly didn’t make a comparison to someone else’s.

    And maybe that’s just how these things go, in conversations over the world wide web. I really wouldn’t know off-hand because my commentary to your posting is the first time I’d ever replied to such; so maybe things taking a turn once a “dialogue” is actually initiated. But a turn is what seems to have taken place, as it were…

    Maybe it is the natural way of these things to become slightly defensive and/or accusatory. Because now I’m allegedly a “Michael Jackson” supporter (which I’m guessing means ardent fan in the context of your comments) and find myself on a somewhat hostile-sounding end of a statement such as: “I would pit my knowledge and judgement against yours any time and any place you like.” Which gives the air of some kind of challenge or duel — which has left me a bit puzzled.

    Particularly because, in the universe of this blog and/or conversation, you’d have to take your judgement over mine; for I haven’t offered one of mine. I don’t see anywhere in either of my previous replies where I gave my opinion as to Mr. Jackson’s genius, or lack thereof — nothing along the lines of “I think” or “I feel” or “I know.” I can’t locate a sentence or statement that begins with “Michael Jackson is…” (brilliant? great? horrible? talented? a hack?) Going back through what I wrote, there is no label I’ve ascribed whatsoever. If you can find differently, please feel free to let me know…

    But maybe our “civil” discourse has become a tad less so (if not in words so much as tone) because we don’t even have the same idea of a word as simple as prolific (generally speaking, not for the purpose of one artist or another). From my understanding, the term prolific is by definition an adjective, which means it is a label given something or someone — which, in turn, would mean that it is typically subjective, but always relative; at the very least.

    Though it feels like I’m saying things that you already know. Either way, I appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond to my comments. And I hope I’ve done my part to keep things pleasant, as that was my intention. And hope you will find others who reply in the future to at least be polite, even when they are passionate about the subject at hand. As I’m sure we can all be from time to time… 🙂

    Oh, by the way, not really on topic — but, wanted to say as a former professional dancer (I know I haven’t gone into my background), that Mr. Presley did not choreograph the famous dance scene from Jailhouse Rock. That was created by Mr. Alex Romero, he broke a number of barriers and had a long list of significant contributions to modern film and television movement as we know it today. It wasn’t really the main point of the article, but wanted to make sure credit was given where credit was due for that often-cited as groundbreaking work. Just in case it ever happens to come up again going forward…

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  9. Originally choreographer Alex Romero created a dance for the song “Jailhouse Rock” that was in a style apropos for a more classically trained dancer than Elvis Presley. When Romero realized that his plans for the number were never going to work, he asked Elvis how would he normally move to the song, leading Elvis to become the uncredited choreographer for what many consider his most famous dance number in all of his movies.

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  10. Thought I’d responded a couple days ago; maybe I shut off the computer before I hit send. What I’d written was that I’m fairly familiar with some of the misconceptions surrounding that famous dance scene (though thanks for sharing the quote!). And that AFI had somewhat painstakingly pulled together in-person presentations from remaining cast/crew, production film footage and still photography from rehearsals to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the movie, back in 2007:

    “It often has been reported incorrectly that Elvis was the choreographer for the big ‘Jailhouse Rock’ production number in this film. The story of the choreography is almost as interesting as the choreography itself, which was totally radical in its day. Alex Romero was the choreographer attached to the film, and he knew that this number would be the main showpiece of the film. Romero came up with choreography that he thought would be appropriate, and he met with Elvis to rehearse it.

    “On Monday, May 6, 1957, Elvis met with Alex Romero. Romero showed Elvis the steps he wanted him to do, which were very classically created (you can see the backup dancers still doing the style in the final production that Romero initially wanted Elvis to attempt), and Elvis did his best to learn the steps. But he was shy with it, and he knew he was no dancer, although his natural moves had been making audiences scream up to that point. But he knew who he was. He was not a trained dancer. It would look stupid for him to attempt it. He didn’t say that, though. He just said he didn’t think he could do it. Romero was a smart man. He did not throw a fit and insist the young Southern boy learn the steps and keep his mouth shut. Instead, he had Elvis perform “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” for him, so Romero could study Elvis’ moves from his live shows. Then he let Elvis go for the evening, telling him they would meet the following day. Romero went home and came up with the concept for the “Jailhouse Rock” number overnight, and as you can see, it’s a brilliant job. Even though it’s the first choreographed routine he has to contend with, Elvis still seems like himself here.

    “Romero got a lot of credit for that. There are a lot of egos in the movie business, a lot of people who need to put their stamp on things (and this is not a surprise, nor is it a bad thing). But in this case, Romero realized that his original conception was entirely wrong, he threw it out in a moment’s notice, and entirely re-worked the dance in a 24 hour period in such a way that it would highlight Elvis’ strengths, it would make him look stronger, better, more awesome, more at home. And of course Elvis appreciated this, and personally requested Romero as his choreographer on three subsequent films.”

    Sorry for the long quote. But realized that it explained it better than I could…

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