“‘The Motown 25 show had actually been taped a month earlier, in April. The whole title was Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever , and I’m forced to admit I had to be talked into doing it. I’m glad I did because the show eventually produced some of the happiest and proudest moments of my life.
As I mentioned earlier, I said no to the idea at first. I had been asked to appear as a member of the Jacksons and then do a dance number on my own. But none of us were Motown artists any longer. There were lengthy debates between me and my managers, Weisner and DeMann. I thought about how much Berry Gordy had done for me and the group, but I told my managers and Motown that I didn’t want to go on TV. My whole attitude toward TV is fairly negative. Eventually Berry came to see me to discuss it. I was editing “Beat It” at the Motown studio, and someone must have told him I was in the building. He came down to the studio and talked to me about it at length. I said, “Okay, but if I do it, I want to do ‘Billie Jean.’” It would have been the only non-Motown song in the whole show. He told me that’s what he wanted me to do anyway. So we agreed to do a Jacksons’ medley, which would include Jermaine. We were all thrilled.
So I gathered my brothers and rehearsed them for this show. I really worked them, and it felt nice, a bit like the old days of the Jackson 5. I choreographed them and rehearsed them for days at our house in Encino, videotaping every rehearsal so we could watch it later. Jermaine and Marlon also made their contributions. Next we went to Motown in Pasadena for rehearsals. We did our act and, even though we reserved our energy and never went all out at rehearsal, all the people there were clapping and coming around and watching us. Then I did my “Billie Jean” rehearsal. I just walked through it because as yet I had nothing planned. I hadn’t had time because I was so busy rehearsing the group.
The next day I called my management office and said, “Please order me a spy’s hat, like a cool fedora – something that a secret agent would wear.” I wanted something sinister and special, a real slouchy kind of hat. I still didn’t have a very good idea of what I was going to do with “Billie Jean.”
During the Thriller sessions, I had found a black jacket, and I said, “You know, someday I’m going to wear this to perform. It was so perfect and so show business that I wore it on Motown 25 .
But the night before the taping, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my solo number. So I went down to the kitchen of our house and played “Billie Jean.” Loud. I was in there by myself, the night before the show, and I pretty much stood there and let the song tell me what to do. I kind of let the dance create itself. I really let it talk to me; I heard the beat come in, and I took this spy’s hat and started to pose and step, letting the “Billie Jean” rhythm create the movements. I felt almost compelled to let it create itself. I couldn’t help it. And that – being able to “step back” and let the dance come through – was a lot of fun.
I had also been practicing certain steps and movements, although most of the performance was actually spontaneous. I had been practicing the Moonwalk for some time, and it dawned on me in our kitchen that I would finally do the Moonwalk in public on Motown 25.
Now the Moonwalk was already out on the street by this time, but I enhanced it a little when I did it. It was born as a break-dance step, a “popping” type of thing that blacks kids had created dancing on the street corners in the ghetto. Black people are truly innovative dancers; they create many of the new dances, pure and simple. So I said, “This is my chance to do it,” and I did it. These three kids taught it to me. They gave me the basics – and I had been doing it a lot in private. I had practiced it together with certain other steps. All I was really sure of was that on the bridge to “Billie Jean” I was going to walk backward and forward at the same time, like walking on the moon.
One the day of the taping, Motown was running behind schedule. Late. So I went off and rehearsed by myself. By then I had my spy hat. My brothers wanted to know what the hat was for, but I told them they’d have to wait and see. But I did ask Nelson Hayes for a favor. “Nelson – after I do the set with my brothers and the lights go down, sneak the hat out to me in the dark. I’ll be in the corner, next to the wings, talking to the audience, but you sneak that hat back there and put it in my hand in the dark.”
So after my brothers and I finished performing, I walked over to the side of the stage and said, “You’re beautiful! I’d like to say those were the good old days; those were magic moments with all my brothers, including Jermaine. But what I really like” – and Nelson is sneaking the hat into my hand – “are the newer songs.” I turned around and grabbed the hat and went into “Billie Jean,” into that heavy rhythm; I could tell that people in the audience were really enjoying my performance. My brothers told me they were crowding the wings watching me with their mouths open, and my parents and sisters were out there in the audience. But I just remember opening my eyes at the end of the thing and seeing this sea of people standing up, applauding. And I felt so many conflicting emotions. I knew I had done my best and felt good, so good. But at the same time I felt disappointed in myself. I had planned to do one really long spin and to stop on my toes, suspended for a moment, but I didn’t stay on my toes as long as I wanted. I did the spin and I landed on one toe. I wanted to just stay there, just freeze there, but it didn’t work quite as I’d planned.
When I got backstage, the people back there were congratulating me. I was still disappointed about the spin. I had been concentrating so hard and I’m such a perfectionist. At the same time I knew this was one of the happiest moments of my life. I knew that for the first time my brothers had really gotten a chance to watch me and see what I was doing, how I was evolving. After the performance, each of them hugged and kissed me backstage. They had never done that before, and I felt happy for all of us. It was so wonderful when they kissed me like that. I loved it! I mean, we hug all the time. My whole family embraces a lot, except for my father. He’s the only one who doesn’t. Whenever the rest of us see each other, we embrace, but when they all kissed me that night, I felt as if I had been blessed by them.
The performance was still gnawing at me, and I wasn’t satisfied until a little boy came up to me backstage. He was about ten years old and was wearing a tuxedo. He looked up at me with stars in his eyes, frozen where he stood, and said, “Man, who ever taught you to dance like that?” I kind of laughed and said, “Practice, I guess.” And this boy was looking at me, awestruck. I walked away, and for the first time that evening I felt really good about what I had accomplished that night. I said to myself, I must have done really well because children are honest. When that kid said what he did, I really felt that I had done a good job. I was so moved by the whole experience that I went right home and wrote down everything which had happened that night. My entry ended with my encounter with the child.
The day after the Motown 25 show, Fred Astaire called me on the telephone. He said – these are his exact words – “You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night.” That’s what Fred Astaire said to me. I thanked him. Then he said, “You’re an angry dancer. I’m the same way. I used to do the same thing with my cane.”
I had met him once or twice in the past, but this was the first time he had ever called me. He went on to say, “I watched the special last night; I taped it and I watched it again this morning. You’re a hell of a mover.”
It was the greatest compliment I had ever received in my life, and the only one I had ever wanted to believe. For Fred Astaire to tell me that meant more to me than anything. Later my performance was nominated for an Emmy Award in a musical category, but I lost to Leontyne Price. It didn’t matter. Fred Astaire had told me things I would never forget – that was my reward. Later he invited me to his house, and there were more compliments from him until I really blushed. He went over my “Billie Jean” performance, step by step. The great choreographer Hermes Pan, who had choreographed Fred’s dances in the movies, came over, and I showed them how to Moonwalk and demonstrated some other steps that really interested them.
Not long after that Gene Kelly came by my house to visit and also said he liked my dancing. It was a fantastic experience, that show, because I felt I had been inducted into an informal fraternity of dancers, and I felt so honored because these were the people I most admired in the world.
Right after Motown 25 my family read a lot of stuff in the press about my being “the new Sinatra” and as “exciting as Elvis” – that kind of thing. It was very nice to hear, but I knew the press could be so fickle. One week they love you, and the next week they act like you’re rubbish. Later I gave the glittery black jacket I wore on Motown 25 to Sammy Davis as a present. He said he was going to do a takeoff of me on stage, and I said, “Here, you want to wear this when you do it?” He was so happy. I love Sammy. He’s such a fine man and a real showman. One of the best. I had been wearing a single glove for years before Thriller . I felt that one glove was cool. Wearing two gloves seemed so ordinary, but a single glove was different and was definitely a look. But I’ve long believed that thinking too much about your look is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, because an artist should let his style evolve naturally, spontaneously. You can’t think about these things; you have to feel your way into them.”