Salvation and Victory In Michael Jackson's Flings With Dallas

Michael Jackson's Dallas ties are scant, save the obvious concert dates throughout a career cut short last week. But the most memorable of those stopovers celebrates its silver anniversary this upcoming July 13 through July 15: In the summer of 1984, Michael and his brothers reunited for the Victory Tour at Texas Stadium, the set list for which was dominated by Thriller singles and Off the Wall hits—everything from a teasing snippet of "Ben" to "Wanna Be Startin' Something" to "Beat It," for which Eddie Van Halen made a special guest appearance during the second show.

In recent days, the dailies have been filled with personal touches from the shows: The Dallas Morning News ran a story about the girl whose griping about $30 ticket prices made her, briefly, a national figure in '84; The Star-Telegram recounted the night Michael spent at George "Spanky" McFarland's house in Keller, during which he watched TV with the Little Rascal and his missus whilst shrouded in an afghan. Those, though, are but cute memories and scrapbook novelties—flowers on a street-side shrine.

YouTube is littered with far more substantive memories worth reliving in the aftermath of so epic a death: clips from the Texas Stadium shows, all of which were professionally recorded for possible release—or so goes the long-standing rumor and fingers-crossed hopes even at this late date. Even in crudely transferred form, they provide a glimpse of Michael at his very peak—before the long, slow slide into pop-freakdom and criminal court dockets, back when he could still moonwalk on water. Seek out in particular the performances of "Billie Jean" and "I'll Be There," the latter among the few nods to the Jackson 5's legacy. The cynics who've spent the better part of a week pretending Jackson's death does not matter will be convinced otherwise; that voice, high and clear and never more resonant, cuts through the grainy picture and pierces even the most hardened of hearts.

Some of us were fortunate enough to see the Jacksons during an even earlier visit to Dallas: August 22, 1973, at Memorial Auditorium at the Dallas Convention Center. I was close to 5, but already an ardent fan—so much so that I begged my father to take me, despite his having a scheduled surgery the very next morning. I recall scant details: the walk through the gravestone-lined Pioneer Park Cemetery, holding my dad's hand as we navigated through the jam-packed passageways; the explosions of light and sound that seemingly punctuated every syllable; the set list that included nearly every song on the Greatest Hits collection that came out in December 1971 and which counts as the very first record my parents ever bought me. I remember the songs vividly, as I brought the blue sleeve to the show and checked off each single as it was performed. By the time the brothers got to "I'll Be There," which remains their masterpiece no matter what the "ABC" true believers and "I Want You Back" apologists would insist, even my father, no fan of popular music, was born again.

Which brings us, at last, to perhaps the most pointed local link of all: The man who wrote "I'll Be There" was born in Carrollton in 1953 and died in Dallas in 2005. His name was Willie Hutch, an immortal rendered a footnote because he couldn't accept Smokey Robinson's invitation to join the Motown stable in 1965, lest he ruin a deal for the Fifth Dimension elsewhere at the time. I met Hutch in 1998 at his studio in Cedar Hill, where he had on the wall his gold and platinum records for "I'll Be There," the writing of which he recounted for the very first time when we spoke that fall.

It begins with a phone call in the summer of 1970 from Motown producer Hal Davis. The time: 3:48 in the morning. Davis and Motown founder Berry Gordy had a title, but no song. Forty-five minutes later, Hutch said, he had written the song—two versions of it, matter of fact.

"At eight that morning, I was at Berry's playing him the first version of it, and it was more like a humanitarian song, with a line like, 'My brother, we must join one another,'" Hutch said. "Berry said, 'You know, I like that, but I think it would be better as a love song.' I had written two versions, so I sang him the second one: 'I'll be your strength/I'll be holdin' on.' He was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it!'"

That very day, the Jacksons went into the studio to cut the song, with Hutch and Davis and Gordy presiding over the affair. Michael would later refer to "I'll Be There" as "our real breakthrough song—it was the one that said, 'We're here to stay.'"

"I knew what we had from the onset," Hutch said. "They were the hottest group in the country, first of all, and they didn't have no ballads. All of the sudden they come out with a ballad, and there it was. And I did all the vocal arrangements on the song, and it broke all the barriers down. God blessed me to be able to say the right things in the right context. One thing I did a lot of people don't catch is the first line: 'You and I must make a pact/We can bring salvation back/Where there is love, I'll be there.' Salvation. It is the food of the soul. A lot of people don't understand, but some people know. I was like"—at this point, Hutch looked up and pointed to the ceiling—"this one's for you. Thanks."

 
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