Before Thriller, there was Off The Wall.
While at Motown Records, Michael Jackson recorded four solo albums: Got To Be There, Ben, Music & Me, and Forever, Michael. The former two did extremely well; the latter two, however, sold poorly at a time when the Jackson 5’s record sales as a whole were declining. In 1975, the group signed with Epic Records and in 1976 released their first album on the label titled The Jacksons, spawning the hits “Enjoy Yourself” and “Show You The Way to Go.” The following year they released their second Epic album Goin’ Places. Although the LP was a stronger album than their previous one, it did not do well. Both albums were produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who had mega success with artists like The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
However, the Jacksons felt it was time to take charge of producing their own work. Though they wrote and produced four cuts on their first two Epic albums, they wanted to take control of the entire project of their next album. The result was 1978’s Destiny, an absolute smash yielding the hits “Blame It On the Boogie” and the platinum-seller “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground.”
It could’ve been destiny at work when Michael Jackson was in New York City during the late months of 1977 filming the motion picture The Wiz. During a rehearsal of the scene in which his character, the Scarecrow, is berated by a bunch of crows, he had mispronounced the name Socrates. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones, who scored The Wiz and was on the set during rehearsal, corrected Michael and told him the proper pronunciation of Socrates. From that moment on, magic (one of Jackson’s favorite terms) was created.
Jackson had first met Jones when he was 12 and ran into him at a couple of other events and parties in years since. But this meeting on the set of The Wiz was where their musical collaboration was born.
Jackson desperately wanted to break out on his own and make an album that sounded different from anything he did with his brothers. Moreover, he wanted songs that were good for him to sing as well as to dance to.
After having others write and create material for him, and after the poor showing of his last solo album at Motown, he wanted to show others what he could do. There was a lot Jackson wanted to say and express, and doing a solo album was his chance to do just that.
The late legendary artist Barry White was instrumental in helping Michael gain the self-confidence to go out on his own. In his book Love Unlimited, White wrote, “All he (Michael) wanted was a fair shot at a solo career. I decided to try to help him get it. I gave him a long lecture on the responsibility he had to make sure he felt to his own music. I told him he had to work to get the album he wanted made.” White also stated that Jackson came over to his home everyday to learn the secret of how he got control of his own music and publishing and the production of his own records.
“The next thing I knew, he managed to make Off the Wall,” White said.
Jackson tried to find the right producer for his solo album. He even at one point considered W. Scharf Black, who wrote his first number one hit “Ben” back in 1972. Jackson approached Quincy Jones during the production of The Wiz. At first, Jones declined because he still had to do post-production work on the score of The Wiz. Some time later, however, Jackson persisted and Jones agreed to produce his album.
The upcoming album was not the first time Jones produced Jackson. Jones’ first musical collaboration with Jackson was on the songs “Ease On Down The Road” ( a duet with Diana Ross) and “You Can’t Win” from The Wiz soundtrack. In fact, Jones reworked a different version of “You Can’t Win” as a single for Jackson rather than the original version on the soundtrack. The single version was funkier with a danceable disco beat, with Jackson re-recording the lyrics in the style with which his fans would later become more familiar. Released in October 1978, “You Can’t Win” only made it to number 42 and 81 on the soul and pop charts but received considerable airplay in discos, which intrigued Jackson.
Jones and his production team that consisted of Louis Johnson (of The Brothers Johnson recording duo), Rod Temperton (from the group Heatwave), Bobby Watson and David “Hawk” Wolinksi (from the group Rufus whom Jones previously produced on their Masterjam album), engineer Bruce Swedien (who was also the engineer for the score of The Wiz) and many others all came together to help make an album that would set the music world on fire.
The majority of the album was recorded in December 1978 with overdubs and post-production work done in April and June 1979. Off the Wall hit record stores on August 10, 1979, three weeks before Jackson’s 21st birthday, and the reaction to it was unprecedented.
The album’s gatefold cover photo showcased a wide-eyed smiling Jackson in a black tuxedo and glowing white socks (the white socks would become one of Jackson’s trademarks), and an afro. This album cover hung on the walls of many Michael Jackson fans.
The lead single off the album, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” was released a month ahead of the album. This was the first song Jackson wrote as a whole. No more “ABC, 123” for Michael Jackson. “Don’t Stop” showed his continued growth and maturity as a songwriter.
This funky, highly energetic track featured a spoken intro by Jackson which exploded into a dance floor jam and featured him singing in high falsetto. It also featured Jackson’s younger brother Randy on percussion and the song ended with a ferocious playing of the kalimba instrument. This song was a huge hit on radio stations and discos during the summer and fall of 1979 and went to number one on the soul charts for five weeks in September 1979, number one for one week on the pop charts in October 1979, and became a platinum selling single.
The promotional video for “Don’t Stop” had Jackson in the tuxedo he wore for the album cover and a closely cropped permed hairstyle lip-syncing the lyrics through a series of visual and special effects, including one in which he appeared in three images of himself during the instrumental break in the song’s mid-section. Although videos were not the primary standard promotional tools artists were using just yet, Jackson nevertheless began using it as opposed to making personal appearances on television shows to promote his new material (the video had its debut on an episode of Soul Train in Oct. 1979) and in a few years he would revolutionize the art of the short form promotional video.
The Off The Wall album as a whole, with its trademark Quincy Jones sound, packed dance floors at discos everywhere. Side one of the album alone was played repeatedly at parties and discos (even at kiddie Halloween parties in 1979). The album was released on the heels of the late Donna Summer’s equally popular Bad Girls album at a time when the disco music craze slowly began to come to a close. Off The Wall was a perfect way to celebrate the disco phenomenon as it was winding down.
Every cut on this album is a standout. After “Don’t Stop” comes the laid back, mid-tempo relaxing groove of “Rock With You,” with an easygoing, gentle vocal by Jackson. This cut, written by Rod Temperton, was released as a single in October 1979 and became the first number one soul hit of 1980, staying at number one for six weeks, and number one on the pop charts for four weeks the same month. “Rock With You” would be certified platinum.
The promo video for this tune, filmed during a break in the “Destiny” tour, was shot on a soundstage as Jackson, in a glittery costume, lip-synced the lyrics as laser lights swirled around him.
The next track, “Working Day & Night,” was like a faster version of “Don’t Stop” and had a scorching, uptempo, fast-paced groove. The last cut on side one was a mid-tempo disco cut titled “Get On The Floor” written by Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. Side two began with the album’s title cut which started off with an eerie laugh by Jackson (foreshadowing the song “Thriller,” perhaps?) before it segued into a funky dance jam instructing people to leave their “9 to 5 up on the shelf and just enjoy” themselves. This was the third single release off the album, which would become a number five soul hit in March 1980 and a number ten pop hit the same month.
The pace of the album slowed down with ballads as the next four tracks. Jackson said in his autobiography Moonwalk that “The ballads are what made Off The Wall a Michael Jackson album.” The soft-rock pop ballad “Girlfriend” was written by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, which McCartney had originally written for Jackson three years earlier after their meeting at a party on the Queen Mary. Afterwards was the haunting dark ballad “She’s Out of My Life.” Jackson cried during several takes of the song until Jones just finally left one of the takes in. The single reached number 10 on the pop charts in June 1980 and number 43 on the soul charts in May 1980 (its chart showing on the soul charts was indicative of the fact that by the spring of 1980, most fans were already familiar with the song after repeatedly playing the album and therefore buying this fourth single was pointless).
This song also made pop music history becoming the first time an artist had four singles from one album placed in the Top Ten (Jackson would break his own record four years later with “Thriller”).
The promo clip for this tune featured Jackson in a dark room in a sullen mood as he lip-synced the song’s melancholy lyrics.
The following track was the jazzy and heavenly “I Can’t Help It,” written by Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green (formerly of the Supremes in its last official lineup). Jackson was joined by Jones’ protege Patti Austin on the perky ballad “It’s The Falling In Love.” Both of their singing voices sounded so similar that it was a perfect match to have them sing this beautiful song together.
The album ended how it began, with a funky, frenetic cut called “Burn This Disco Out.”
Off The Wall received both major critical and commercial success, reaching number three on the pop charts and number one on the soul charts for 16 weeks. It would be certified both gold and platinum, and established Jackson as a creative genius who was capable of breaking away from his child star image to become an adult superstar.
The album would eventually sell over 8 million copies in the U.S. and over 20 million copies worldwide.
While the album received major awards at the American Music Awards (Favorite Soul R&B album, Favorite Male Soul/R&B Artist and Favorite Male Soul R&B single for “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”), it was virtually ignored by the Grammy Awards, receiving only one nomination which Jackson won: Favorite R&B Vocal Performance by a Male for “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” Jackson stated that he felt ignored by his peers (the Grammys are voted on by artists in the recording industry). The album would eventually be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. But, as he said in Moonwalk: “Wait until next time. They won’t be able to ignore the next album.”
Indeed, a few years later, Jackson would record an album that would eventually “thrill” the entire world.
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is developing creative projects within the entertainment industry.