Michael Jackson and WMMS
The sudden and unexpected death of Michael Jackson brings to mind the alleged controversies surrounding our decision to play his music on WMMS. In fact, Michael Jackson played deep into the history of WMMS.
I defended it then to those believing we crossed a musical line and I defend it even more strongly now; we made the right decision to play Michael Jackson, Prince, and other African-American cross-0ver artists on WMMS. All the urban legends about that decision came from people who weren’t in that music meeting in March, 1983.
We’d often spend a week or two, even more, discussing the merit of certain songs and artists and whether we should add them or not.
There was “Smalltown Boy” by the gay British trio Bronski Beat, about a boy who was shunned by his family and friends when they learned of his sexual orientation; hardly another album rock station in America would play it, and even the label asked if were sure. Yet-without incident or complaint – we added it.
But Denny Sanders, Kid Leo, and I didn’t debate whether we should play Michael Jackson for weeks or months, just as we never pondered about playing the Isley Brothers, Gloria Gaynor, and George and Gwen McRae. We never anguished over playing Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Gil Scott-Heron, or B.B. King, or classic rhythm and blues tunes from the sixties and seventies by the Temptations to Aretha. They were the roots of rock and roll music. The hottest rock band in the world in the seventies, Led Zeppelin, freely borrowed music and even lyrics from rhythm and blues tunes.
We didn’t have meetings with the corporate or anyone else before we added Michael Jackson. And we didn’t do it to get a greater teen audience, as our rivals suggested. It came down to one thing. Michael Jackson was the hottest act in show business, his music was mass appeal, he was all over MTV when that meant something, and as a popular culture format radio station we’d be crazy not to play him. In fact, we knew we were late for that party. WGCL had been on Jackson’s Thriller album from the time it was released, and I supposed it through a few ratings points in their direction.
A couple of days after we started playing “Beat It,” which we considered a rock song – right down to the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, we added “Billie Jean,” a masterpiece that already was an MTV staple. Within days they were the two most requested songs on WMMS and sounded as pop and rock as anything else we were playing at the time.
I believed, as did Denny and Leo, that Michael Jackson would not alienate most of our audience. No one boycotted the station. We didn’t get petitioned to stop playing him. Maybe ten people – max – called or wrote to complain. And we weren’t the only album rock format station to play Michael Jackson, though others tried and even apologized for it. I heard one album rock station in another market play “Beat It” and identify it as Eddie Van Halen – not even mentioning Jackson’s name.
The same week we started playing Michael Jackson, we also added Eddy Grant’s infamous “Electric Avenue” (Grant was a member of the Equals who had a top 40 hit, “Baby Come Back” that we’d occasionally spin), Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” – including the 12” version, and Rockers Revenge’s updated version of “The Harder they Come,” which was a huge song for us in the seventies by Jimmy Cliff, and “All You Ever Think About is Sex” by the band Sparks. We were covering all the musical bases.
In retrospect, Denny, Leo and I realized we were actually a little late with adding Thriller, but we right on time with Victory, the 1984 album, which reunited Michael Jackson with his brothers for the first time since 1980’s Triumph. Actually, Victory was more like the Beatles’ White Album or Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, a collection of solo projects on which the brothers, as a group, did not appear on every track. Its first single, “State of Shock,” featured Michael in a duet with the lead singer of what many back then called the world’s greatest rock and roll band – Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
Coinciding with its release, the Victory World Tour was announced. It reunited all the Jackson brothers, including Jermaine, who had not performed with them since they quit Motown Records in 1975, but not Jackie, who was on the album but didn’t tour because of a knee injury. Like most events involving Michael Jackson, the tour was unconventionally supported and financed. Charles Sullivan, the son of New England Patriots owner William “Billy” Sullivan, would not risk any stadium shows without up-front guarantees. Sullivan had invested millions in the tour and was coming up short when a number of dates he fronted failed to sell out. The initial announcement had the group playing fifty concerts in the U.S. and Canada.
Cleveland was not among them. Malrite President Carl Hirsch threw out a suggestion to me about bringing the Jacksons to Cleveland Municipal Stadium ourselves – fully sponsored and supported by WMMS. Carl and I agreed that being a popular culture station made far more sense than being pigeon-holed as a specific format. Carl knew our goal was to have the best radio station in America and he was always there to back the attack. He asked a lot of questions before he’d back you and he asked all the right questions. It was Carl that provided WMMS autonomy when I and others needed it. Carl never threw away money. Every dollar he invested, he got back ten.
I agreed the tour was worth the gamble – but it was also the ground zero for problems started that would eventually lead to the beginning of the end of WMMS as we had known it for a eleven years.
To be continued.
More on WMMS and Michael Jackson in Chapters 23 and 26 in The Buzzard