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Off The Wall Era
The Off The Wall years; 1978-1981, would see Michael Jackson grow up musically. He starred in his first major motion picture and he would set the first of many world records with his first solo album for Epic records.
In October 1978, Michael’s first motion picture was released, called “The Wiz”. The Wiz was a Motown and Universal motion picture soul adaptation of the book “The Wizard of Oz”. Michael auditioned for and gained the role of the scarecrow in the film and moved to New York with his sister LaToya in October 1977 for filming. Michael’s good friend Diana Ross starred as Dorothy in the film.
The Wiz cost approximately $24 million to make and was directed by Sidney Lumet. It featured hundreds of dancers, spectacular costumes, elaborate makeup and special effects. It was one of the most expensive films ever made and took over a year in production. Michael’s makeup for the scarecrow took five hours to apply each day.
When the film was released, it was unfortunately a box office failure. However, Michael’s performance in the film was critically praised and the film received four Academy Award nominations, including: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Music Score and Best Cinematography. The film was released on home video in 1980 and today it has a large cult following.
Michael sang in 6 of the movie soundtrack’s songs, including “You Can’t Win” and “Ease on Down the Road”, both of which were released as singles in 1979. “You Can’t Win” was Michael’s first solo single for Epic records and it remained in the charts in the US for three weeks. The Soundtrack for The Wiz would mark the first time Michael would work with producer Quincy Jones.
Michael had mentioned to Quincy Jones while they were on the set of The Wiz that he was looking for a producer for his next solo album. Quincy recommended himself and quickly signed on to produce Michael’s first solo album in four years, to be called “Off The Wall”.
Michael and Quincy went into the studio in December 1978 and chose between hundreds of songs for the album. They collaborated with several musicians and writers who would become long time colleagues of Michael’s.
On July 28th 1979, Michael released the first single from the forthcoming album; “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. The song was solely written by Michael and featured a spoken intro, a surprising falsetto voice and amazing percussion by Michael and his brother Randy. The song was released with a bright music video that featured Michael dancing in triplicate in the song’s bridge. It was his first “short film” and it was directed by Nick Saxon. The song went to number 1 in the US and Australia and was a top 10 hit in 6 countries.
On August 10th, Michael released the album Off The Wall. It was his fifth overall solo album, but his first ever for Epic records. The album was recorded between December 4 1978 and July 7, 1979. Michael contributed three songs to Off The Wall: “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”, “Working Day and Night” and “Get on the Floor” (co-written with Louis Johnson). Michael and Quincy sought top writers and musicians for the album, with Rod Temperton who contributed three tracks: “Rock With You”, “Off The Wall” and “Burn This Disco Out”, Paul McCartney contributed the playful “Girlfriend”, Tom Bahler gave the emotional “She’s Out of My Life” and Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene offered the quirky “I Can’t Help It”. There was one duet between Michael and Patti Austin called “It’s the Falling in Love”, which was written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster.
The album was hailed as a major breakthrough for Michael, and received amazing reviews. The album went to number 3 in the US chart and number 1 on the US soul chart and stayed on the top 20 for a massive 48 weeks.
On August 29th, 1979, Michael Jackson turned 21. His management contract with his father’s company, Joseph Jackson Productions, lapsed and was not renewed. Michael wanted to take full control of his music and business affairs and he hired his own accountants, lawyers and management. Weisner and DeMann were signed on as Michael’s personal management.
In November 1979, the second single form the album, “Rock With You” was released. The music video, directed by Bruce Gowers, featured Michael in an all-sequinned suit and boots. The song quickly became a number one hit on the US charts.
Apart from “Rock With You” becoming one of 1980’s first number one hits, the Off The Wall album sales shot up and quickly became the third best selling album of 1980. The album also caught the attention of Michael’s peers and in January, Michael won his first Grammy award as a solo performer for “Best R & B Performance” for “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. In the same month, Michael attended the American Music Awards and collected three more awards for the album: “Favourite Soul Album”, “Favourite Male Artist” and “Favourite Soul Single” for “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. Michael also won four Billboard Awards for the album.
In the spring of 1980, Michael released the title track of the album, “Off The Wall”. The single went to number 5 in the US charts and became a top ten hit in four countries.
The fourth single released from Off The Wall landed Michael in the record books. “She’s Out of My Life” was an emotional ballad, accompanied by a simple music video, again directed by Bruce Gowers. The song itself required several takes as Michael would break down with emotion at the end of the song. The emotion was eventually left in and the song reached number 10 on the US chart and became a top 20 hit in four countries. Michael Jackson became the first artist in history to generate four top ten hits from an album.
The fifth and last single released was “Girlfriend”. It was only released in the UK and stayed in the top 50 there for five weeks.
1980 quickly became a busy year for Michael and he went back into the studio, this time with his brothers, The Jacksons, to record the album Triumph. Michael contributed to six of the album’s nine tracks. The album was released in September 1980 and it reached number one on the US R & B chart. “Lovely One” was the first single off the album. Also released before the end of 1980 was “Heartbreak Hotel”, completely written and arranged by Michael. The song’s title was changed to “This Place Hotel” to avoid confusion between the song and Elvis Presley’s hit song. The song reached number 2 on the US R&B chart.
Also in 1980, Michael and some of his family members were interviewed by Sylvia Chase for 20/20. It was a short televised interview, and Michael revealed his feelings about the stage and his career.
“Can You Feel It” was the third single released from the Triumph album, released in early 1981. It was supported by an amazing short film, directed by Robert Abel and loaded with special effects. It reportedly cost over $100,000 to make. The seven minute video was groundbreaking and the single was a top five hit in Europe. “Walk Right Now” was released soon after and reached number 7 in the UK.
On July 9, 1981, The Jacksons embarked on a 39-city tour of the US, starting in Memphis Tennessee, called the Triumph Tour. The show included pyrotechnics and special effects by magician Doug Henning. The Tour broke stadium records around the country and The Jacksons played to approximately 600,000 fans and grossed approximately $5.5 million. They also raised $100,000 for the Atlanta Children’s Foundation. The Madison Square Garden concert was recorded and released as an album called The Jacksons Live! 1981. The Tour ended with four record breaking sold out shows at the Los Angeles Forum in September.
By 1981, Michael’s Off The Wall album had sold an incredible 5 million copies. Today it is seen as one of Michael Jackson’s most important records. He had become the first artist in history to generate four number one singles off an album. He had also sold more records than any artist at a time when the record industry was experiencing a major slump in sales. To date, Off The Wall has sold over 20 million copies world wide. The album had started a 9 year partnership with producer Quincy Jones and had displayed Michael’s amazing song writing and vocal skills. The best was yet to come, as Michael was soon back in the studio, creating the biggest selling album of all time.
Next read about the Thriller Era, 1982- 1984, when Michael becomes a worldwide superstar. Or read about the previous Jacksons era.
Michael Jackson Thrill by Caroline Latham
Moonwalk By Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson: the Magic and the Madness by J. Randy Tarraborelli
Michael! By Mark Bego
Michael Jackson The Man In The Mirror by Todd Gold
Michael Jackson The Golden Touch by Paul Honeyford
Michael Jackson Body and Soul by Gordon Matthews
Sylvia Chase Interview for 20/20, 1980
"Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues" presented by Motown
“Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller” presented by Vestron
Footage from The Triumph Tour
(websites used for consultation and confirmation of official dates and official award titles only)
Article written solely for allmichaeljackson.com by Marni Carlsson.