In 1978, [artist id="1102"]Michael Jackson[/artist] was known primarily for being “the cute one” in the Jackson 5. He had released four solo albums, scored a #1 solo hit (’72′s “Ben,” from the film of the same name) and had just left his longtime home — Motown Records — for a new deal with Epic Records. He wasn’t yet the King of Pop — he was barely even a prince. Rather, he was a child star trying to make the leap from precocious to profound — a leap that most can’t pull off.
Still, Jackson had a better shot than many. In ’78, he starred as the Scarecrow in “The Wiz,” a big-budget retelling of “The Wizard of Oz.” The film, starring Diana Ross and Richard Pryor, was unsuccessful, but his contribution was a spry, bounding turn that, as one critic posited, “provided the only genuinely memorable moments” in the film.
Jackson’s talents weren’t just noticed by the critics. Legendary producer Quincy Jones served as the musical supervisor on “The Wiz,” and was amazed by Jackson’s dedication to his role, later saying in his autobiography that his acting method reminded him of a young Sammy Davis Jr. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that Jones also produced the soundtrack to the film, marking his first musical collaboration with Jackson. Needless to say, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Shortly after the release of “The Wiz,” Jones and Jackson convened in a series of Los Angeles recording studios to begin work on the album that would make the Jackson 5 a distant memory. Recorded over the span of seven months, featuring a cracking session band and drawing upon some of the finest songwriters in the business (Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, disco king Rod Temperton), Off the Wall was a landmark effort — a supremely styled, game-changing smash that turned Jackson into an international superstar. The album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, deposited four singles into the Billboard Top 10 and showcased (or, more specifically, unleashed) Jackson’s talents as a entertainer, a vocalist, a writer and, most importantly, as a leading man.
Off the Wall signified Jackson’s independence, and not just from the stifling creative control foisted on him by the folks at Motown. Over the course of 10 revelatory tracks, Jackson serves notice that he’s no longer the cherub-faced boy with the notable afro, he’s a full-grown man, one capable of workin’ day and night, not stopping ’til he’s had enough and loving so hard that it cuts like a knife. A masterful mixture of fiery disco tracks (album opener “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Workin’ Day and Night”), smooth, loverman tunes (“Rock With You,” the McCartney cover “Girlfriend”) and positively soul-devastating ballads (“She’s Out of My Life,” on which Jackson famously breaks down at track’s end), Off the Wall is sumptuous, sexy and self-assured, a powerhouse that, through sheer skill of all involved, re-imagined R&B, disco and funk as not just so-called “black” music, but as colorblind, all-encompassing pop music, tunes that the entire world could groove to. And they did.
Part 1: Wiz Kid (1958-78)
Part 2: Don’t Stop (1979-81)
Part 3: Global Superstar (1982-86)
Part 4: The Eccentric King Of Pop (1986-99)
Part 5: The Final Years (2000-09)
Michael Jackson: A Life In Photos
Watch Michael’s Complete Life & Legacy
The album was largely ignored by the Grammys (it took home just one award, for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male), but that hardly mattered. Critics praised his singing — one Melody Maker review called Jackson “probably the best singer in the world right now in terms of style and technique” — his newfound depth and maturity, and compared his skills to those of Stevie Wonder. And thanks to Wall‘s success, Jackson truly became a star — hobnobbing with the likes of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol at Studio 54 — and a sex symbol, famously dating model/actress Brooke Shields (not to mention the stylish tux he wore on the album’s cover).
Emboldened by that success, he also began to show glimpses of the savvy that would make him iconic — and rich — in the 1980s, making flashy (for the time, anyway) videos for singles from the album and renegotiating his royalty rate with Epic Records to an astonishing 37 percent of wholesale album profit, by far the highest in the industry.
Michael Jackson had arrived. He was a swaggering, sexy star, a force to be reckoned with, and an unstoppable hit-making machine. And, as the decade drew to a close, confident and rich and already beyond famous, he began to think of ways to follow up Off the Wall. He knew that he’d once again work with Jones, and he knew the album had to be huge. But never in his wildest dreams could he imagine what would happen next …NEXT: Thriller and the Victory Tour make Jackson the biggest star in the world.
MTV’s live coverage of the Michael Jackson public memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles will begin on Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT.