One of the greatest career openers ever starts with a piano glissando that explodes instantly into a guitar/bass/piano standoff that’s easily as dramatic as the climax of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Then, as the percussion and the strings come in and establish what they’re going to do for the rest of the song, that voice — neither young nor old, neither male or female, but utterly bursting with enthusiasm and soul — kicks in, and a star is born.
Lemme tell ya now!
That star, of course, is the preternaturally talented Michael Jackson, who was only 11 years old. And while, visually, there was probably a novelty appeal of having a kid sing lost love lyrics that he couldn’t possibly have yet experienced, aurally “I Want You Back” is three minutes of pure magic.
Sure, the arrangement by The Corporation is absolutely top notch, with the instruments darting in and out of the mix, and the drums only kicking in for the chorus, and plenty of call-and-response between Michael and his brothers.
But if “I Want You Back” is magic, then it’s Michael Jackson who is the magician. Somehow, without his voices having even changed, he was able to put the same amount of world-weary fry into his vocals that soul men five times his age were still looking for.
Just check out the “All I want / All I need” section and hear how he’s getting more and more desperate at every turn — so desperate that they needed to toss one of his brothers in there just to calm things down again.
Had Michael Jackson only ever sang lead on “I Want You Back,” he’d be remembered. But of course, it was just the beginning. (In case you didn’t know.)
“I Want You Back”
“I Want You Back” performed live in 1971
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