Shaking It Down For Michael
MICHAEL JACKSON 1958 - 2009
No matter how you felt about Michael Jackson's remarkable and frequently strange sojourn on Planet Showbiz, he undeniably had a huge impact one way or another on popular music, dance, and cosmetic surgery. As pictured above about age 20, around 1979 on the Off The Wall LP cover, this handsome kid had already been an entertainment powerhouse for at least a decade, and was just beginning a solo career after going about as far as he could with the family act, the Jackson 5 (a/k/a the Jacksons) , that he overwhelmingly dominated. He was writing his own material (some of which was really very good work) and would soon move units of product in unbelievably huge amounts through the music business pipeline, creating several of the largest selling albums in history, and becoming the King of Pop, a chimerical figure who over time conspired with compliant plastic surgeons to obsessively disfigure himself nearly beyond recognition (and Halloween), retreated to a ranch called Neverland, where he pretty much abandoned performing, hung out with children to the point of arrest and huge civil lawsuits, and, surrounded by various enablers paid never to say no to him, became a laughingstock and paparazzi wetdream, ever-promising the fabled comeback; and, it now seems, his longterm, hardcore drug abuse contributed to his ultimate downward spiral beyond the reach of anyone, ironically dying amid preparations for a dazzling multi-concert farewell to performing, which, as a result, has caused sales of his music to once again skyrocket. Death can be very good for your numbers. It is the peculiarly all too American success saga in all its tragic glory. I'm from Memphis. We had one one of those fame-outs about 30 years ago at a place called Graceland. . . .
What the hell does any of this have to do with New Orleans music? Blessedly, very little, really. The vast machinations of The Business have only peripherally touched New Orleans to such an extent; and, while we wish that all of the artists discussed at HOTG had attained at least some level of professional success and rewards, we really wouldn't wish Michael's trip on anybody. Give us Ernie K-Doe's charming, humorous, and (relatively) harmless megalomania, along with his late wife's community service, Fats Domino's downhome mega-sellers, Irma Thomas' bedrock genuine soulfulness, and Allen Toussaint's always classy career transformations - ANY DAY.
I'm not trying to demean Mr. Jackson here. He was talented in the extreme. But talent and fame can be a volatile mixture at best, a lethal one at the other end. It all just makes me appreciate the under-appreciated even more, as I crawl back under my rock to write about some of them. Talking with some people at work today about Michael Jackson's music, I got to thinking and realized I most dug Michael Jackson's work on Off The Wall, though I admired some of his other later tunes too. Then I recalled that the Rebirth Brass Band had covered one of Jackson's tunes from that period - it was actually on the Jacksons' 1978 album, Destiny (thanks to Brett for the heads-up) - in their early days. . . .
photo by Rick Olivier
"Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" (Steven Jackson-Michael Jackson)
Rebirth Brass Band, from Feel Like Funkin' It Up, Rounder, 1989
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When Rebirth Brass Band recorded this classic record for Rounder, they were all just into their 20s, I think, except for the diminutive trumpeter, Derrick Shezbie, who was much younger. Started in the Treme neighborhood around 1983 by brothers Philip (tuba) and Keith (bass drum) Frazier, and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins while they were in high school, Rebirth were really one of the first of the new wave of young brass bands to emerge in New Orleans, inspired by the success and innovations of the somewhat older Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who had revitalized the brass band sound starting in the late 1970s. In 1984, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records recorded RBB live at the Grease Lounge and released an LP/CD of those performances, Here to Stay. Birthed in 1989, Feel Like Funkin' It Up was the first of five fine albums the band did for Rounder Records.
This album's selections were a mix of some of RBB's hot, funky original tunes, a few brass band classics from the tradition, Fat Domino's "I'm Walkin'", and oddly this Michael Jackson radio hit from the 1970s, reconstituted in the Rebirth blender. That the Jacksons' hit song translated remarkably well into the struttin' Crescent City street idiom, speaks well of both it's musical quality and the young band's chops for arrangement and blowing. It ends all too soon.
Playing in the band on this record were the Frazier brothers, Ruffins, Shezbie, John Gilbert (tenor sax), Keith 'Wolf' Anderson (trombone), Derek Wiley (trumpet), and Kenneth Austin (snare drum). The Rebirth today remain one of the premier local brass bands (and there are many contenders who have arisen since they got their start) and tour extensively. The Fraziers and Shezbie remain the core of the group, while Kermit Ruffins has gone on to have a very successful solo career - thankfully, not in Michael Jackson terms, but in New Orleans terms.
So, let's shake it down and do some buck jumpin' for Michael, an amazing musician and entertainer who got lost in his own funhouse. It's all about the music. Whether you are making it or listening to it, you should never forget that.
[Note: this cut will be only up here for a short time, before it is transferred to the HOTG Radio playlist.]