Michael Jackson performs during a concert at the historical Berlin Reichstag on June 19, 1988.

Michael Jackson performs during a concert at the historical Berlin Reichstag on June 19, 1988.

There is no doubting Michael Jackson’s talent and the impact he had on music, dance and pop culture. In a career spanning five decades, Jackson became a global icon, selling more than 400 million albums and earing 13 Grammy awards. In a new biography of Jackson, veteran music journalist Steve Knopper goes beyond the gossip and scandal that plagued the star’s life. The Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor takes a close look at his unique vision to appeal to a broad audience, and he explores the forces that fueled Jackson’s success and enabled him to become the “King of Pop.”


  • Steve Knopper Contributing editor, Rolling Stone magazine; he has written about music for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Wired; author, "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age"

Jackson's Legendary Performance Of 'Billie Jean' At Motown 25

Read An Excerpt

MJ: THE GENIUS OF MICHAEL JACKSON, by Steve Knopper. Copyright © 2015 by Steve Knopper. Reprinted by arrangement with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

The Genius Of Michael Jackson

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  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Michael Jackson's album "Thriller" remains the bestselling U.S. album ever made. This was not an accident according to veteran music reporter Steve Knopper. He says the self-proclaimed King of Pop intentionally wrote music that would appeal to the widest audience possible, young and old, black and white. Steve Knopper joins me. His new book is titled "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson."

  • 11:07:28

    MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure many of you are fans and will want to call in. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Steve, it's good to see you.

  • 11:07:47

    MR. STEVE KNOPPERThank you so much for having me. It's nice to be here.

  • 11:07:49

    REHMMy pleasure. You know, there's been so much written and talked about Michael Jackson's sad ending, but instead, you've chosen to focus on his life, his music.

  • 11:08:06

    KNOPPERThat's correct. I mean, the title's "The Genius Of Michael Jackson" and I really took that word literally, you know. He was a genius in many ways. I think people forget. I think people see him as that song and dance man from the '80s, a lot of kind of casual fans. And people forget that this was a guy who was hearing whole symphonies of music in his head throughout his career and what he needed, especially when he was very young, was just instrumentalists and people who specialized in studio equipment to help him translate those ideas, those musical ideas onto the page, into the recording studio.

  • 11:08:44

    REHMHow many people did you talk to for this book?

  • 11:08:49

    KNOPPERI wound up talking to more than 400.

  • 11:08:51


  • 11:08:51

    KNOPPERI wound up being 450-something in the end.

  • 11:08:53

    REHMAnd why? Why so many?

  • 11:08:57

    KNOPPERWell, you know, what I wanted to do -- there have been many Michael Jackson books and what I wanted to do was sort of write the Michael Jackson book that I wanted to read. And there hasn't really been one that is a narrative type of book that tells a story that really focuses on music and dance and performance. And so what I wanted to do was just break down everything. I wanted to say how did his songwriting, how did his singing, how did his dance moves evolve?

  • 11:09:27

    KNOPPERAnd so my method to do that was just to interview everyone I could find and I actually went through CD liner notes and I would try to, you know, contact every single person on the list of liner notes.

  • 11:09:37

    REHMAnd here he was expressing his talent as early as age 6.

  • 11:09:45

    KNOPPERYes, exactly. I mean, he was the lead singer of the band of brothers, of what was at first The Jacksons and then The Jackson 5. They were growing up in Gary, Indiana, and the famous story is that Tito, Michael's brother, was "borrowing" his father's guitar because Joe Jackson, the father, was in a blues band. And, suddenly, they were all playing -- Tito was playing guitar and the whole family was sitting around singing and Michael just emerged as this talent that no one could ignore.

  • 11:10:20

    KNOPPERIt was just suddenly this guy has it. Everyone saw it from a very early age.

  • 11:10:25

    REHMLet's hear a clip from "I Want You Back." What year would this have been recorded?

  • 11:10:33

    KNOPPEROh, I believe it was -- I want to say it was 1969, but I'm sometimes bad at memorizing the dates.

  • 11:10:38

    REHMAnd how old would he have been at the time?

  • 11:10:40

    KNOPPERAt that point, he would've 11. This was by the Motown years.

  • 11:11:48

    REHMHis voice comes through so incredibly.

  • 11:11:52

    KNOPPERIt does. I mean, all the Jackson brothers in The Jackson 5 were incredibly talented. I mean, for awhile, when Michael was too young, there was some thought that Jermaine would be the lead singer. But, really, when I listened to The Jackson 5 and I tried to capture this in the book, they are just this incredibly sympathetic backup band to Michael, I mean, in many ways like the E Street Band to Bruce Springsteen or The Beatles were in their harmony.

  • 11:12:15

    REHMBut you know what's so incredible is that during this whole period, Michael Jackson's father was so abusive.

  • 11:12:26

    KNOPPERYeah. I mean, Michael himself detailed the beatings that his father gave him. You know, Michael went on "Oprah" in the early '90s and had given interviews throughout his life and his father was somebody who was incredibly strict and he would sort of say he was doing this kind of abuse to keep his family in line. And Michael said he beat him with iron cords and Michael had to run around the house fleeing from him.

  • 11:12:55

    KNOPPERAnd it was sad. And that had an impact on Michael and his art and his life through the end, really.

  • 11:13:00

    REHMWell, and you write something about if Michael Jackson wanted to rerecord a song, his father would beat him.

  • 11:13:12

    KNOPPERWell, that was an incident in a studio in Detroit when The Jackson 5 was first recording at Motown. And Michael was interested -- he was a perfectionist, as many singers are, even the ones who are 11 or 12 years old, and his father was concerned about running out of studio time, which was -- and the expense of the studio time. And so I talked to an engineer at the Motown studio at the time who witnessed this sort of, you know, no, Michael, we can't do that. It's too expense. And sort of hitting during this moment.

  • 11:13:41

    KNOPPERAnd, you know, there are many people who have witnessed this over time and this is kind of well documented and Michael talked about it himself.

  • 11:13:49

    REHMThere's one incident where Bobby Taylor, the group Vancouvers, what happened?

  • 11:13:56

    KNOPPEROkay. So Bobby Taylor was a singer at Motown. I did not talk to him. He was actually quoted in some liner notes in the early '90s about this. But Bobby Taylor lead this group called The Vancouvers and he was well respected and well known as a singer and later a producer for Motown and he was one of the very early Jackson 5 producers. And he gave this interview many years ago where he said that he had to threaten to pull a gun on Joe to keep him out of the studio and to keep him from being abusive.

  • 11:14:26

    REHMMichael Jackson's father.

  • 11:14:28

    KNOPPERMichael Jackson's father, Joe, right.

  • 11:14:30


  • 11:14:30

    KNOPPERYes. Yeah, it's a -- I mean, it was some abuse. I mean, Joe later was interviewed more recently and he was asked sort of did you abuse your kids as Michael and others have said. And Joe, you know, without blinking an eye, he said, well, everybody said I did these beatings. I'm paraphrasing. But really, what I was doing was whooping them and there's a distinction there. You know, I don't -- it seems semantic to me. And others of Joe's children defended this over time.

  • 11:14:59

    KNOPPERYou know, there have been other -- Marlon and Jermaine and others have said, I mean, Joe had to keep us in line. He had to be that strict because the mean streets of Gary, Indiana, in the '60s were very violent. There were gangs and drugs were starting to come in, that sort of thing and our dad had to keep us in line. I'm not sure that's necessarily true.

  • 11:15:16

    REHMSo how did Michael Jackson manage to move away from his family?

  • 11:15:25

    KNOPPERYeah. I mean, that's an interesting question. Michael continually throughout his life sought father figures and to an extent, mother figures, too. And in his art and in his life, I mean, he stayed at Diana Ross' home for many years. Elizabeth Taylor was a close friend of his. You know, so there are all these figures. The relationship that I concentrate on quite a bit in the book because it's a musical relationship is the one he had with Quincy Jones, you know.

  • 11:15:53

    KNOPPERAnd Quincy Jones was someone who was a great manager. He nurtured Michael. He pulled great art out of Michael and collaborated with him on those recordings that he did with Michael.

  • 11:16:08

    REHMHow do you think he did that?

  • 11:16:10

    KNOPPERWell, a few different ways. I mean, one of the great things that I was able to have access to was a box of cassette tapes that a source had in which Michael is talking and recording demos and various things, some of which have never been heard. And one of my favorite things of the whole book was I was listening to one of these tapes and it was Michael and Quincy talking in the late '70s, after they'd worked on the movie "The Wiz" together.

  • 11:16:34

    KNOPPERAnd it was one of their very first kind of in-depth phone conversations about music. And there's a, you know, Quincy's a rambler. He goes on and on and on and Michael's just sort of going, um-hum, yeah.

  • 11:16:45

    REHMUh-huh, yeah.

  • 11:16:45

    KNOPPERAt one point, he goes, whoo, which was really great to listen to, you know. And there's a -- mostly it's Quincy talking and Michael listening and then at one point, Michael kind of throws out there, I hear music in my head. And then, there's a pause. And Quincy, you can tell he's very excited by this and he says, well, Michael, if you can hear music in your head, I can help you put that down on paper. I can help you capture that.

  • 11:17:09

    KNOPPERAnd I felt like that was a moment. I felt like that was the moment where Quincy is showing Michael that with his vast expertise with jazz charts and all the different things that he brought to the table that he could help draw out this singular talent. And that was the moment. That's exactly what happened on three albums, really, on "Off The Wall," and then "Thriller" and then "Bad." That partnership was incredibly fruitful. It made some of the greatest pop music in history.

  • 11:17:36

    REHMSteve Knopper, pardon me. His new book is titled "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson." If you'd like to join us, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You're going to hear more music and more about Michael Jackson's life when we come back. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. In this hour, we're talking about Michael Jackson and a new book by Steve Knopper. Steve is a contributing editor to "Rolling Stone" magazine. His new book is titled "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson. Just before the break, you were talking about Quincy Jones and the extent to which he had helped Michael Jackson. Here's a comment on Facebook posted by Burt who says, "Quincy Jones was the musical genius, not Michael Jackson. Mike was the showman. Quincy is the genius. The early stuff was all Motown arrangements. Mike, as a solo artist, was all Quincy."

  • 11:21:00

    KNOPPERInteresting comment. I do not agree with that. And I think, I mean, I think it was a partnership of two geniuses. Quincy Jones was a genius as an arranger, as a producer. He had his own songwriters and his own stable of people, including Rod Temperton who wrote "Thriller" and some other pieces. But those -- especially on "Off The Wall" and "Thriller," those were from -- I talked to almost everybody at all those sessions, maybe 85 to 90 percent of the different musicians and engineers who were there and everybody to a person agrees that Michael, you know, was a writer, brought in his own stuff.

  • 11:21:36

    KNOPPERHe wrote "Billy Jean." That was not a mirage or a fake, you know. He wrote "Beat It." He contributed all these different things. He was a young songwriter at the time, perhaps not as sophisticated as he would be later. And, also, I mean, after Quincy, Michael produced great work as well, the "Dangerous," "The History," and "The Invincible" albums are all, I think, excellent works and Quincy was not involved with this.

  • 11:21:57

    REHMAnd let's hear a bit of "Beat It."

  • 11:22:33

    REHMThere is a solo guitarist in that piece.

  • 11:22:38

    KNOPPERThere is. You may have heard of him, Eddie Van Halen, who was the guitarist for the -- is still the guitarist for Van Halen. And there's an interesting story. I mean, Eddie was called -- Quincy and Michael were pretty smart when they put out "Thriller." They wanted a great album, but they also wanted a great album that would sell to everybody. And, remember, this is the early '80s. Disco had just crashed and there was a little bit of sort of a segregation on the radio airwaves, again.

  • 11:23:05

    KNOPPERYou know, that had been true for many years. Disco kind of integrated things and then it was true again. And Quincy, especially, wanted to make sure that Michael could reach the widest possible audience so, you know, he collaborated with Paul McCartney at one point on "The Girl Is Mine." And that was the first single and that was designed to sort of reach the crossover audience, if you will. And then, Eddie Van Halen, who was a white rock star who played on white segregated rock radio stations for the most part, was enlisted to play this solo.

  • 11:23:36

    KNOPPERAnd then, "Beat It" became a huge hit and Michael became broader and broader.

  • 11:23:40

    REHMSo does he get credit for breaking the racial barrier?

  • 11:23:47

    KNOPPERHe should. I think he does. I give him credit for that in my book, I mean, on a number of levels. And one of the themes in the book is sort of Michael comes from this African-American neighborhood in Gary, a very segregated neighborhood, and his frame of reference when he's very young, pre-Jackson 5, is just all African-Americans. Like, he doesn't really see any white people, necessarily. As he gets older, he creates a world that is more and more limitless for himself and he becomes somebody who breaks racial barriers. He talked about that many times.

  • 11:24:20

    KNOPPEROf course, it's addressed in songs like "Black Or White," you know, where he's basically saying races get together. Let's do something together and that became kind of his thesis statement for awhile.

  • 11:24:32

    REHMHow in the world did he learn to dance the way he did?

  • 11:24:38

    KNOPPERYeah. I think one of the things I enjoyed writing the most in the book was Michael and dance because in addition to being able to watch all those great clips over and over and over again, I got to talk to these great choreographers and dancers who are really fun to talk to. And one of the answers to that question is from a very early age, Michael had this sort of perfect pitch for dancing. He could watch steps that someone else did and almost immediately go out and reproduce them himself, which is -- from the dancers I've talked to, that's -- I'm not a dancer, but that's a pretty rare skill, a pretty rare talent to be able to do.

  • 11:25:13

    KNOPPERIn addition to that, he worked incredibly hard on his dancing and he sought out mentors so he would -- remember, The Jackson 5 were famous when all these kids were very young, when Michael was 5, 6, 7 years old and they were stars on the Chitlin circuit of African-American theaters during that time. And Michael would go out and see The Temptations and he would stand behind the dusty curtain of the theater, as he said in his autobiography, and he would say, i want to be able to do that. And then, he would find one of those singers and they would teach him how to do that directly.

  • 11:25:47

    KNOPPERAnd that happened throughout his life and...

  • 11:25:48

    REHMWhat about that iconic moonwalk?

  • 11:25:51

    KNOPPERYes. So the moonwalk is actually -- it was a little bit of Michael appropriating something that had been -- as all great artists do, you know, great artists steal, as they say, but Michael took something, a move called the back slide that had been around for decades, done by many people. He had a number of different teachers show him the various ways to do that step and then, in 1983, after he did it, no one ever called it the back slide again.

  • 11:26:20


  • 11:26:20

    KNOPPERYeah, it was always the moonwalk every since.

  • 11:26:22

    REHMAlways the moonwalk. We have a caller in Holland, Michigan, who'd like to join the program. Let's go to Freddy. Hi there, you're on the air.

  • 11:26:36

    FREDDYHi, Diane. And hi, guest author.

  • 11:26:39


  • 11:26:39


  • 11:26:39

    FREDDYAppreciate you taking the call.

  • 11:26:40


  • 11:26:41

    FREDDYI listen to your show a lot. I just want to make a quick comment. The author, before you guys went to break, the author made a statement about Joe Jackson beating his kids and you kind of -- author, you're kind of portraying the guy as a guy who beat his children like more out just the will to do it just because he could or wanted to. I don't think that's fair to Joe Jackson. I'm not actually defending Joe Jackson, do not know the man, but as a black male that grew up out of that era during that same time, just about the same age, and living in those same kind of circumstances and environments, disciplinary action through whooping a child and the term beating are two different things.

  • 11:27:31

    FREDDYAnd you need to make a distinction about that because -- and in that age -- that time, because of what was going on in the '60s, the despair black and white, especially with the police, you have a lot of things that black families had to worry about and had to be more instructive on with their kids and the children weren't afforded to be able to make certain mistakes that white society's children were able to make at that time and...

  • 11:28:01

    REHMInteresting point.

  • 11:28:03

    KNOPPERVery interesting. You know, I think that that is something that Joe Jackson and many of his children would agree with and I tried to say that before. You know, many of his kids have come out and said, we appreciate what Joe did in terms of disciplining us so incredibly stringently because it kept us off the streets. I mean, Tito and others have made the point that none of them were in jail, none of them were -- they all went on to some success in the entertainment industry. My personal feeling is, yes, there are always cultural differences, you know, and there is -- I guess there is a distinction between beating and whooping and I understand what the caller is saying.

  • 11:28:41

    KNOPPERI've heard that before. I don’t think -- I'm not in favor of corporal punishment of your children. I think that beating your kids or physically abusing your kids, even for a good reason, I don't agree with that.

  • 11:28:54

    REHMYou know, we were talking about the moonwalk and Michael Jackson himself makes a speech at a Motown reunion show. Let's hear a little of it.

  • 11:29:40

    MR. MICHAEL JACKSONOh, you're beautiful. Thank you. Thank you. You know, those -- I have to say those were the good old days. I love those songs. Those were magic moments with all my brothers, including Jermaine. But, you know, those were good songs. I like those songs a lot, but especially, I like the new songs.

  • 11:30:22

    REHMSo tell me what you see as the significance of that speech.

  • 11:30:28

    KNOPPERSo to me, that -- I mean, that speech was not written by Michael. It was written by a friend of his by the name of Buz Kohan, who I interviewed. But, to me, the significance, as I say in the book, that that was one of those musical moments that changed history, that changed the history and the course of American popular music. Everyone saw that moment. In my book, I compare it to Elvis Presley doing his famous version in 1954 of "Milk Cow Blues Boogie," where he says, hold it, fellas, that don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change.

  • 11:31:01

    KNOPPERYou know, the famous moment. And it wasn’t technically the birth of rock and roll, but it changed -- it was a moment that you could hear it changing. Benny Goodman, in 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood is playing this kind of old dinner party music. No one's really dancing and then, he just says, why not? And he does the Fletcher Henderson jumping arrangement for King Porter Stomp. And, suddenly, there's a dance floor riot and the swing era is born. This is the moment where Michael says, I used to be like that. Now, I'm like this.

  • 11:31:33

    KNOPPERAnd it's some of the most, you know, it's "Billie Jean." It was the first time a lot of people had heard "Billie Jean," really.

  • 11:31:39

    REHMWe've got another tweet here, which says -- let me see if I can find it. It says, "I'm curious as to why Steve Knopper feels qualified to write about Michael Jackson. Why is his book different from the rest?"

  • 11:32:07

    KNOPPERFair point. I mean, why am I qualified? I've been a music journalist for 25 years. You know, I've been writing for Rolling Stones for 10 or 15 years now and I'm also the kind of person who likes to interview people and add depth to a subject. So, again, I mean, there have been many, many books written about Michael Jackson, some really excellent. The book that I wanted to read had not been written and when I read sort of investigated narrative books about Michael, it's all sort of, we're gonna get this guy. We're gonna tell the truth about this guy.

  • 11:32:41

    KNOPPERAnd, of course, I want to tell the truth, too, but what I wanted to write was sort of, you know, the music. The stories about the music. And my method is to go out and interview a lot of people and, you know, I talked to all the different engineers and producers and musicians and dancers and choreographers. And, you know, even if people aren't sure whether I'm the right writer for this job because I never have interviewed Michael himself, I would think that they would want to read the perspective of these people.

  • 11:33:08

    REHMSteve Knopper, he's the author of "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And here is a comment on our Facebook page posted by Kelly who says, "He was a pedophile, which negates any 'genius' he may have had."

  • 11:33:39

    KNOPPERYeah. Not surprised to hear that comment. I do have many pages, I go into that. I go into the child molestation trial. And I guess I want to be very sensitive to that comment. You know, I'm sensitive to the idea that if a child accuses someone of child molestation, then you'd have to take that child very seriously. What I did was go into that portion of the book as best as I could with an open mind and I interviewed both sides. I interviewed the prosecutors who tried -- who had the case against Michael for his trial in 2005.

  • 11:34:15

    KNOPPERI interviewed his defense attorney and many, many people who had defended him and I just wanted to be persuaded. I wanted to be convinced. To me, you know, Michael was declared not guilty of child molestation in 2005 by a trial -- by a jury rather, which I don't think was gamed or bought in any way. I mean, he had a strong defense, but I don't think that there was anything that there was anything unfair or untoward about the decision. And in the end -- and I tried to interview all the children, too, who made accusations and some who have defended him, didn't, you know, most of them didn't talk to me, which was not surprising.

  • 11:34:47

    KNOPPERIn the end, I just couldn't find any evidence to support the idea of that, you know. In my book, I'm going to go ahead and say that he's a pedophile, despite the fact that he was found not guilty by a jury. And, you know, I just let myself be convinced. So at this point, I mean -- maybe there's more evidence to come. You know, there's other claims being made against him. There are some people who are claiming repressed memory and so forth. But as far as the evidence now, I didn't have anything in my book that could say, you know, let's go against this 2005 jury decision.

  • 11:35:23

    REHMLet's talk for a moment about his style, his fashion, the white glove, the skin color, the jackets he wore. It was all part of who he wanted to be.

  • 11:35:42

    KNOPPERYeah. I mean, Michael, as one of the earlier commenters said, in addition to everything else, Michael was a showman, you know, and he was someone who had great instincts on fashion, you know. And he had the military jackets, you know, and he had the black satin jacket for the moonwalk performance that became iconic, that was borrowed from his mother. That's come out more recently. He had the one white glove, the white socks and the black shoes were something he borrowed from one of his heroes, Fred Astaire, you know, because the white socks were easier to see on stage.

  • 11:36:18

    KNOPPERAnd he just -- he borrowed little bits of fashion from all different sources, all people who had influenced him just as he borrowed dance moves from James Brown and Fred Astaire and many other people.

  • 11:36:29

    REHMBut did he have teachers to help him with those dance steps?

  • 11:36:34

    KNOPPERYes. With the dance steps, he did. I mean, yeah, what I write is that the moonwalk had a precursor and there was sort of a -- I mean, if you really pay attention to the evolution of Michael's dancing through his career, which you can do now on YouTube, it's great, you know, you start to see in The Jackson 5, he was doing like these James Brown twirly moves. And then, later, he did his first kind of holy, you know, holy whatever move, which was the robot, you know, and that was a dance that he derived not only from "Soul Train," which had a dancer -- that old TV show that had a dancer doing the robot, but also from mime.

  • 11:37:15

    KNOPPERHe was friends with Robert Shields of Shields and Yarnell when he was a kid and so Michael borrowed a lot of stuff from Marcel Marceau and other influences. Then, you know, when he came to do the moonwalk, he found the dancers who'd pulled off the back slide and he arranged for them to teach it to him.

  • 11:37:32

    REHMSteve Knopper, the book "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson." Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMWelcome back. We're talking about a new book "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson." Steve Knopper, spelled K-N-O-P-P-E-R, is the author. He has been a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. He's written about music for The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. I want to ask you about the hit song and video "Black And (sic) White." Let's listen to a bit of it.

  • 11:41:17

    REHMHe really takes on the topic of race in this hit "Black Or White."

  • 11:41:23

    KNOPPERHe does. And Michael, I think, he got on a jag throughout his career where he just wanted to unite the races. You know, he -- I think Motown helped teach him that. You know, Motown was an African-American label run by African-American management, Berry Gordy, Jr. And yet its mission was to create hits for everybody, you know, and that was the idea of the crossover. And Michael kind of internalized that I think throughout his career, and he just wanted to make songs and music and performances for everyone. I think he didn't want to recognize those boundaries. He -- you know, MTV didn't really play African-American artists at first until it played Michael Jackson. There's a whole long story...

  • 11:42:08


  • 11:42:08

    KNOPPER...I won't get into about...

  • 11:42:09


  • 11:42:09

    KNOPPER...why that happened.

  • 11:42:10

    REHMYeah. All right. Let's go to Elaine in Hampton, N.J. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:42:19

    ELAINEHi there. How are you?

  • 11:42:20

    REHMFine, thanks. Go right ahead, please.

  • 11:42:23

    ELAINEI'm so glad and so inspired that finally a book was written that portrays Michael Jackson as a talented singer and dancer that he truly was, and not another book that rips him apart. I remember where I was when I heard that he had had a heart attack, and I grew up with Michael Jackson. I'm basically the same age. And I was upset. And when I found he passed away, boy, did I cry. And I just think that it's a wonderful thing to have a book finally that really shows who Michael Jackson was.

  • 11:43:05

    REHMThanks for calling, Elaine.

  • 11:43:07

    KNOPPERThat was my intent. You know, I appreciate that comment, and I hope you like the book. My intent was to sort of say this is why we loved Michael Jackson. You know, this is the music that made us happy listening to him. And, you know, I wanted to tell the truth. I think there's -- you know, I don't shy away from the other issues outside of the music in the book, but I wanted to write kind of a breezy book that showed -- that was fun to read, that was fun to read ideally in the way that you have fun listening to his music.

  • 11:43:37

    REHMAnd to Roy in Richmond, Va. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:43:43

    ROYGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:43:45


  • 11:43:47

    ROYI would like to ask the author, what was actually Jackson's proficiency on the guitar? He wrote hard rock songs like, you know, "Beat It," "Black Or White," "Give Into Me." He never played it on stage, that he played in the studio, and then I also remember that 1972 album "Music In Me," in which he did -- was holding an acoustic guitar. Where was he with the instrument?

  • 11:44:15

    KNOPPERYou know, Michael was not an instrumentalist. To my knowledge, if he did play guitar, it was in a kind of tinkering kind of way, which was true of other instruments as well. And those songs that you refer to, I mean, again, he would hear these riffs and these sometimes fully formed songs in his head. And what he would have was a series of people who work with him at his home studio, as well as, you know, the high paid studios the record label would pay for, and that's where Quincy Jones comes in to sort of translate that to him. And he would come and he would say, this is what I'm hearing, de-dah, de-dah, de-dah, de-dah, and someone else would put it on the keyboard for him.

  • 11:44:50

    REHMWow. So it came out of his head, out of his mouth, and they would transcribe it.

  • 11:44:56

    KNOPPERHe had a whole series of people, an evolution of people who did this for him over the years.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMSteve, talk about our earlier caller referred to his heart attack. How old was he when he had that heart attack? How did it affect him?

  • 11:45:14

    KNOPPERWell, I'm not sure what the caller is referring to about the heart attack, per se. I mean, I know he was having some on-again, off-again health problems, especially late in life. But really -- I mean, and he died ultimately of a heart attack that was induced by this propofol overdose. But my -- I'm not completely familiar with the particular incident that the caller's talking about.

  • 11:45:35

    REHMAll right. And the next caller is from Paul in Ortona, Fla. You're on the air.

  • 11:45:48

    PAULYes. Good morning. You're like the Judy Collins of lady interviewers. Your interviews are wonderful duets, wonderful harmonies.

  • 11:46:00

    REHMThank you so much.

  • 11:46:02

    PAULMy question to your guest is, do you think Michael Jackson's heart was in his last tour?

  • 11:46:09

    KNOPPERAre you referring to the "This Is It" tour, the one that he was preparing for?

  • 11:46:14


  • 11:46:16

    KNOPPERYeah, I mean, that was the tour that never actually happened because, of course, you know, just as he was about to take the rehearsals to the London, he passed away. And so, you know, the documentary film, "Michael Jackson's This Is It," came out afterwards and showed the rehearsal and the preparation for this tour. And the question is, was his heart in those shows? I think that's a complicated question. It's a really good question.

  • 11:46:40

    KNOPPERI think, yes, I think he really wanted to do those shows. I think he was very passionate about them. He had an incredible amount of showmanship and special effects and dancing lined up for them. Whether, you know, his heart was into them in the other definition, like was he physically equipped to be able to do those shows, that's a whole other question, and there's some debate. Some people said, yes, he was strong enough, we saw him every day, he was doing fine. And other people said he looked emaciated and, you know, he was not able to come to rehearsal very often, and he was declining at that point.

  • 11:47:14

    REHMHow much surgery did he have on his face?

  • 11:47:21

    KNOPPERYeah, it was significant.

  • 11:47:22


  • 11:47:23

    KNOPPERI get into that in the book. Yes, he did. And he -- you know, he always claimed that -- he always sort of diminished that idea. He would say, oh, I've only had two nose jobs, and that was not true. He had many more than that. And most people can see that. You know, I mean, there's different theories as to why he did all this facial surgery. You know, there's one theory that, you know, he was trying to get his father and the -- what his father looked like off his face. You know, and there's another -- there are all kinds of crazy theories out there.

  • 11:47:58

    KNOPPERIn the end, I mean, I think what I try to propose in the book is the thesis that he just over time felt like he didn't want any limits or boundaries. He didn't want any racial boundaries. He didn't want any financial boundaries. He didn't want any boundaries as far as what he could do with his music or his art. And he didn't want any boundaries in facial structure, and so he just kept tinkering...

  • 11:48:21


  • 11:48:21

    KNOPPER...and he just became more and more limitless to a point of sort of an absurd degree, but, you know, I think over time he sort of lost people in his life who were able to say, hey, Michael, maybe you're going a little bit too far with this. Even his family had said stuff like that.

  • 11:48:36

    REHMBeth in Baltimore wants you to speak about MJ's skin disease, Vitiligo.

  • 11:48:45

    KNOPPERYeah. So Vitiligo is a skin disease, and it's a very painful disease that afflicts a certain minority of people. And what it does is it makes your skin blotchy. And in the case of people who are African-American, the blotches appear to be a white color, more like a Caucasian person's skin. And Michael had that. As a young man he started to notice it. He was diagnosed with this disease. He took medication for it. And ultimately what he decided to do, I mean, a lot of -- my understanding, a lot of African-Americans who had this disease sort of used makeup to cover it up.

  • 11:49:21

    KNOPPERBut Michael Jackson was in the public eye every day, and people were looking at his skin and scrutinizing it and looking at his appearance in the tabloids and everything else on screen, and I think he just didn't want to do that anymore, so he ultimately decided he would go the other direction and just kind of lighten his skin. You know, he got a lot of criticism for doing this.

  • 11:49:40

    REHMHow did he do that?

  • 11:49:42

    KNOPPERWell, he had creams and lotions and various things. He had a lot of doctors who were helping him do that.

  • 11:49:47

    REHMJust to make his whole face lighter.

  • 11:49:51

    KNOPPERYeah, to make his whole complexion lighter, yeah, yeah. He did this over time. And, you know, I'm not sure -- I kind of feel like one thing -- I don't really criticize him for that. Like, I'm sympathetic to the idea that he had Vitiligo and he had to deal with it some way, and it was very painful and embarrassing. But one thing that I think he could've done more effectively throughout his career is level with the public and talk to the public in a way that was -- I mean, he was a showman. You know, he learned from way back, going back to the Motown days, you have to have a little bit PT Burnem in you. You know, you have to sort of like leave a little mystery, leave them guessing. And I think he internalized that.

  • 11:50:28

    KNOPPERAnd so when he would do these big interviews with Oprah and whoever else, a lot of it was true, you know, and forthcoming, and then there were a lot of sort of like, I'm not quite telling you the whole story. And he left mystery there, but ultimately I think the mystery didn't serve him necessarily. He was a unique case. I mean, it might've served another star who's trying to make it in the music business, but Michael was so huge that it wasn't helpful to him after a certain point.

  • 11:50:55

    REHMSteve Knopper, "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson" is his book. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. Let's go to Little Rock, Ark. Hi, Jay, you're on the air.

  • 11:51:17

    JAYHi, Diane. I am a fan of yours and a fan of Michael Jackson's always, like millions of other people. But I just had a comment. I was the executive chef at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion a few years back, and we had an event called The Black Hall of Fame. And as you know, Little Rock is racially charged anyway, but Joe Jackson was one of the inductees, and so I got a chance to meet him and have pictures with him. And it was just very interesting. I never knew he was from Arkansas. And he obsessed about hand sanitizer. And so he said, please find me some hand sanitizer. And I looked around and found the bottle of it, and he said, am I supposed to drink that, and laughed. And he was a very nice man to me.

  • 11:52:17


  • 11:52:18

    KNOPPERYeah, very interesting. I mean, Joe Jackson's story, you know, Joe was in a -- I was fascinated by the fact that Joe was in a blues band in Gary, Ind. right outside Chicago in the '50s after he moved up from the south. And he didn't -- his path -- I was interested in the idea that he was doing the same thing that the great bluesmen did, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and the others, and the whole exodus of African-American bluesmen from the south to urban northern cities like Detroit and Chicago. Didn't quite work that way for Joe. He wound up going to Oakland, you know, and then he eventually landed in Gary and so forth.

  • 11:52:54

    KNOPPERBut the stories parallel, and, you know, Joe was in this blues band, and had he had talent himself, he could've easily followed the story as sort of Muddy Waters. Instead, he passed it down to his son who was from the younger generation, his sons I should say, and they were much more influenced by newer music, like the Temptations and Motown and so forth.

  • 11:53:13

    REHMSo as Michael's death came about, lots of money, huge estate, what happened to it all?

  • 11:53:25

    KNOPPERWell, there was a dispute originally about the estate. And, you know, originally it was -- originally it was thought that his mother would kind of take over the will and administer for it his three children. And then at a certain point shortly after his death, his former attorney, or actually his current attorney at the time of his death, John Branca, produced a will, a copy of a will that Michael had signed 10 years or so earlier. And the will basically ceded the estate. It created an estate with Branca himself as well as another guy, John McClain, who'd worked with the Jackson family on music for many, many years, as the co-executors for the estate.

  • 11:54:08

    KNOPPERAnd of course the heirs remain Michael's three children, who I believe are still underage. And there's been some dispute about that. There are people including Joe and Randy in the Jackson family who believe that that is not legitimate, that Michael's will was sort of signed at a time and a place where he couldn't have possibly been. But in the end, you know, a court in Los Angeles overruled all those concerns and allowed the estate to be created with Mr. Branca and Mr. McClain as the executors. And that's where it stands today.

  • 11:54:38

    REHMAnd so who has custody of those children now?

  • 11:54:44

    KNOPPERWell, right now Katherine is the person who is in charge of the children.

  • 11:54:51

    REHMKatherine being?

  • 11:54:51

    KNOPPERKatherine, Michael's mother. I'm sorry. And, you know, she receives a certain stipend from the estate to be able to raise Michael's children properly. And that's the way it works currently.

  • 11:55:03

    REHMAnd how old are those children now?

  • 11:55:06

    KNOPPERI will not remember the ages, but they are all in -- I believe they are all in their teen years. I believe that the oldest, Prince, is 17 or 18. I believe he recently graduated from high school, but it's been a while since I wrote that chapter of the book, so I apologize if I'm not up on that.

  • 11:55:22

    REHMAnd there are two children or three?

  • 11:55:26

    KNOPPERThree. There's a total of three. Prince is the oldest, Paris is the middle, and also named Prince, but his nickname is Blanket, is the youngest.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMWow. I mean, what a legacy and what a shadow Michael Jackson casts over those three children.

  • 11:55:46

    KNOPPERYeah, absolutely. I mean, it's hard for any star's child to...

  • 11:55:52


  • 11:55:52

    KNOPPER...kind of go through life with this kind of burden of expectations, and in their case, you know, the public eye and growing up with the cameras all around, a very unique childhood that they had.

  • 11:56:04

    REHMBut are they in the public eye, or are they very much kept out of the public eye?

  • 11:56:10

    KNOPPERMy sense is that they're being raised in a pretty excellent way right now. Katherine and the other people around them are allowing them to sort of do their own thing and thrive. A few years ago Paris had some problems. There was a well-documented suicide attempt, and she wound up living in like a home for troubled kids in, I believe, it was Utah, but she seems to have recovered from that. And it seems like the three kids are doing pretty well now from what I understand.

  • 11:56:37

    REHMI'm glad to hear that. Steve Knopper, the book is titled "MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson." Thank you.

  • 11:56:48

    KNOPPERAbsolutely. Thanks for having me.

  • 11:56:49

    REHMAnd thanks all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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