#203 – Billie Jean by Michael Jackson
One of the best things about living in New York City (and there are many) is never knowing whom you might meet next. Sometime between the months of March and May 1983 I met a very interesting guy in my Gramercy Park neighborhood. Now don’t get excited and think I’m going to drop Michael Jackson’s name, because I can’t. I never met him.
But I was forewarned that his performance of Billie Jean on the television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was going to be earth shattering.
The guy that told me this knew what he was talking about because he had been at the taping. In fact, he played a big role not only behind the scenes but also on camera.
I hung with a tight group of friends in Gramercy Park. I’ve always compared living in NYC to living in a small town. It’s a BIG place made up of small neighborhoods. We’d go Uptown, Downtown, Midtown and to The Boroughs for concerts, dinners, ballgames – whatever. But when it was time to go “home” we’d end up back in our neighborhood. And the main hangout was our own Cheers style bar restaurant, The Honey Tree, on the corner of 3rd Avenue and East 20th Street.
It was the type of place where everybody knew your name. And when someone new walked in and got involved in one of our conversations, arguments or just plain stupidity (“How’s it goin’ Norm?!“) it made the evenings into late nights a lot more interesting. Some of the names that dropped in were Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole, Ed O’Neill and the entire band Journey.
But those are stories I’ve already told or saving for later.
Since most of us were in our late-20’s and had the ripe old age of 30 directly in our sights, we were pretty set in our musical tastes. The jukebox at The Honey Tree was filled with classic oldies from the 60’s and 70’s. If you wanted to hear disco or punk, there were other neighborhood hangouts, which is another great thing about NYC.
When you’re looking for something else it can always be found.
So even though you’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of Michael Jackson, in 1983 more than a few of us would rather listen to his old songs with The Jackson 5. We really weren’t looking for something else. These were the big Motown hits, I Want You Back, The Love You Save and I’ll Be There. My girlfriend (at the time) and I would be up and dancing whenever one of these songs was placed on the jukebox turntable.
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Of course The Jackson 5 was only one of the many artists that put Motown on the music map forever. Boomers grew up listening to The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the other amazing artists that made up the Detroit sound. And it was a big deal when it was announced the television special celebrating 25 years of the record label would air on May 16th.
One night during the months mentioned above, a guy walked in and before too long he was in the middle of one of our conversations. Or it might have been stupidity… But that doesn’t matter. He seemed funny and had a lot of personality, so he fit right in. His name was Lester Wilson and when we asked what he did, he said he was a dancer.
We didn’t know any professional dancers, so we started with the questions. He told us he was also a choreographer, had worked on Broadway and in films, and had just finished working on Motown 25. Since I’m working off memory, I can’t remember why he was in NYC at this time – but after checking out his bio online it had to be something good. I’ll also guess he was staying at The Gramercy Hotel which is why he was a regular part of our Cheers crowd for the next few months.
Lester told us about Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean performance. I can’t remember the adjectives, but mind-blowing would be a good description. He kept saying we’re not going to believe it when we see it. So on May 16th we watched.
Okay, we all know the legend. Michael reunited with his brothers to sing our favorite Jackson 5 hits. When they finished the brothers left the stage and Michael pulled out the sequined glove, the fedora and moonwalked into music history.
But what was especially cool for us was seeing our new pal Lester dancing center stage during the show’s gala opening number. If you want to check it out, below is a link for the entire show. You only need to watch the first four minutes – he’s the guy in the red sweater with the long hair. The group is also billed as The Lester Wilson Dancers.
Since The Classic Rocker is all about memories I can’t simply focus on Motown 25 or Lester when I hear Billie Jean. Whether you like Michael Jackson or not this was his moment – similar to The Beatles debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He already had a successful solo career, but this put him in the stratosphere of pop music. Elvis was the 50’s, The Beatles were the 60’s and Michael was the 80’s. The other decades have their own musical personas, for example the 70’s went from hippies to heavy metal to punk to disco. The 90’s were grunge, hip-hop and rap. But those periods never had a single artist that overwhelmingly dominated and influenced our popular culture as these three.
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Billie Jean dominated my Classic Rocker mind on the morning of April 26th. At the time I didn’t own a copy, but that’s changed since and now it’s on my digital playlist joining my Motown and Jackson 5 favorites. But because I hadn’t heard it for a long time until that waking moment, it’s on my subliminal music chart.
Lester Wilson was a very interesting guy. I can’t remember how long he was part of our neighborhood scene, but that’s another thing about living in NYC. People come and go (including me) and when you’re part of it, life is rarely boring.
Since I’ve always been a huge Motown fan I remember going with my girlfriend (at the time) to see The Temptations and The Four Tops on Broadway. It was at least a year later because the show opened with Levi Stubbs (lead singer for The Tops) singing Marvin Gaye’s hit What’s Going On to open the show. Gaye had been murdered by his father on April 1, 1984 and this was soon after. The curtain was closed and just a single spotlight was aimed at the stage. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Stubbs finished, but within moments everyone was on their feet dancing along to one of the best concerts I was ever fortunate enough to attend.
Afterwards we went to our neighborhood Cheers for a nightcap and Lester was at the bar. We raved about the show and I remember saying he should have warned me Levi Stubbs had grown a beard. I wasn’t used to seeing him that way from photos. Yes, that’s a small detail – but one I remember from our conversation, which also helps put all these years in some type of order.
I did an online search for Lester Wilson and learned he was much bigger than he had let on during this time. Not only did he choreograph Motown 25 and Broadway musicals, but also the movies Saturday Night Fever (coached John Travolta), The Wiz, Funny Lady, Sister Act and others. But I’m sad to learn he passed away only ten years after we met in 1993 at the youthful age of 50.
As I mentioned above, you never know whom you might meet next in NYC. I may not have met Michael Jackson, but I had been warned the music scene was on the verge of changing by a guy who had.
Here’s a video of Michael’s performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.
To purchase The Essential Michael Jackson with Billie Jean visit Amazon.com
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