Motown 60: Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)


(Above: I still can’t quite figure it out.)

“Did you see it?”

Conversations on a typical Tuesday morning in high school weren’t interesting: tests, girls, dirty jokes, and the like. But the morning of May 17, 1983 wasn’t typical. The baseball season was just getting started, and the White Sox had gained a game on Sunday to be only three and a half games out of first. (They’d drop a doubleheader to the eventual world champion Orioles that night, but still win the division that year by twenty games.) No, that morning we were all talking about a guy who danced on the television.

May 16, 1983 was the air date of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever. As an oldies nerd from way back, I wasn’t going to miss a TV show that featured Motown acts. As it turned out, a lot of parents of my classmates were thinking the same thing, and in a pre-Internet world with a limit on the number of screens in the house, an awful lot of students at Andrew High School saw the special as well.

The show wasn’t all home runs, either: for some reason, Adam Ant was on it performing “Where Did Our Love Go.” Howard Hesseman played the role of Dr. Johnny Fever doing the sort of DJ patter that no real DJ ever patters anymore, nor did they really ever do. John Moschitta, the fast-talking guy from a popular Federal Express commercial at the time, was brought on to read a list of Motown artists – and tripped trying to read too fast. We didn’t get to see the Marvelettes, but we got… DeBarge. A lot of acts were either not included, or only given short bursts of airtime. (Junior Walker got thirty seconds. Mary Wells should have had more time on screen, and Edwin Starr should have been on at all.)

What we did get to see, though, was pretty magical. Smokey Robinson got together with The Miracles, who lingered in his shadow for years. (We also got Linda Ronstadt singing the Smokey songs she had hits with. I can only guess that someone didn’t want the show to be “too black.”) Marvin Gaye was fantastic, and – as it turned out – would be dead within a year, making the appearance even more important. The Temptations and the Four Tops did a sing-off/dance-off with a lot of fantastic tunes, and even the ego of Diana Ross couldn’t entirely get in the way of the Supremes getting together to sing.

But the jewel of the night was the reunion of the Jackson Five.  Even in my 99.9% white high school, we’d heard of the J5. A Chicagoland TV station even went so far as to dig out their cartoon series from the 70s and show the old episodes in an effort to cash in on the popularity that was Michael Jackson in 1983. The real crowning moment of the show was bringing all of the brothers out on stage to do a medley of their hits – among the biggest ever released on the Motown label.

After the group sang a few songs, they gave Michael the spotlight, and we got to hear “Billie Jean.” The song went to #1 the first week of March, and was such a big hit that even MTV realized that they had to play the video. It spent seven weeks at the top, so it had fallen out of the top spot by May 16 but was replaced by “Beat It.” (Aside from one week where the top of the chart was held by Dexys Midnight Runners, 1983 was the year of Michael Jackson.) By 1983 Chicago’s WBBM-FM was airing consultant Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” format, which called for the #1 song to be played at the top of every hour. That meant 24 hours, seven days a week, seven weeks = a lot of “Billie Jean,” so we all knew it. But we hadn’t seen it quite the same way until tonight, and the way we saw Jackson – in the fedora with the single glove – is the way he’s most clearly remembered.

In the middle of the performance, over the instrumental break, Jackson executed the Moonwalk. The gathered crowd went wild. At home, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The white kids at Andrew who got together to breakdance (yes, there were several) tried to replicate the step and just couldn’t quite get it right. That’s why, on a normally lazy Tuesday morning, we were all talking about a guy dancing on the television the night before. It was unlike anything we had ever seen.

If you’ve never seen it, you should. Practice your steps by watching here.


3 thoughts on “Motown 60: Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)

  1. I’ve read many places about Diana Ross pushing Mary Wilson while they were on stage during this special (which of course was edited out of the broadcast). Apparently it’s in a vault somewhere and will never be released.


  2. Pingback: Exploring the pop charts: The Billboard Hot 100 (March 26, 1983) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

  3. I really enjoyed the Hitsville USA tour, in Detroit, a tour of the Motown studio.

    At first I was disappointed that there were only group tours, but the group tour thing works. There were about 30 of us, all strangers, about 50/50 b&w, and it ended up being our own little party.

    When I am in Detroit by myself, I stay across the street from Hitsville.


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