It is 4 p.m.Tuesday in 1970 and I am running as fast as I possibly can. Despite the bows on my PF Flyer tennis shoes being knotted at least 27 times, one lace still has a good 10 inches of slack, which causes it to flop like a trodden banner between my feet as I very nearly literally fly down the hill from Skyline Drive on Sychar Road. Because of my hands, I am oblivious to the drama at my feet. In my left, I am clutching a small, flat white paper bag that contains the brand new 45 RPM single (look it up, whippersnappers) of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” In my right, my favorite candy in the world at that time, a confection so simultaneously delicious and physically dangerous that it must have been developed by rouge dentists in some remote laboratory off the coast of Papua, New Guinea: a Sugar Mama. Basically a Chocolate-covered Sugar Daddy, which was essentially hard caramel on a stick. Diabolical! The Jackson 5 eventually even released a song called “Sugar Daddy,” but this digression is actually developing further digressions at this point… let it suffice to say that my second favorite thing in the world was in my right hand… but at that golden shining moment in time, it was all about what was in that left hand. Still is.
It had all started several months earlier on a typically beautiful, if unremarkable autumn evening in San Diego.
We had swings, a slide, and a jungle gym in our backyard and I often chose to hang upside down on the latter. I was doing just that and enjoying whatever fruits of life were afforded a six-year-old boy when the ominous, driving beat that introduces Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” wafted out of one of the neighbor’s houses like the glorious smell of grilling barbecue. The sound was so instantly and completely overwhelming that I froze in place, completely motionless and undeniably enraptured. The horns and strings entered, heightening the tension with their muted, yet swaggering fanfare. Suddenly, the entire arrangement seemed to be parted like the Red Sea by the mournful, aching moan of Marvin’s voice.
Ooh, I bet you’re wondering how I knew/About your plans to make me blue…
I don’t know if I was stupefied or mesmerized or both, but I did know that I had never heard anything like this before….
With some other guuuuuuy that you knew before.
As Gaye’s voice nailed that high falsetto, full of all that power, angst, and, dare I say, sex, I surrendered control of my whole little body and fell straight onto my head! I clearly remember the colors of the setting sun that day. How they appeared to be imbued with greater vibrancy. Everything in the world seemed more brilliant. Sharper. Clearer. Intense. Sights, sounds, smells, literally everything in the world around me seemed to make more sense somehow. Obviously, things have never been quite the same.
As I turned the corner onto Los Soneto Drive, narrowly avoiding a collision with a girl wearing steel-wheeled roller skates, I bee-lined straight past my house and down the hill to my friend Richard’s house without even looking. I arrive at his door, knocking like the place is on fire.
“Hey, hey man! I got it! I got the new Jackson 5!” I sputtered like I’d just discovered electricity.
“What? Lemme see that!” Richard said as he simultaneously took the single from the bag, placed it on the turntable and dropped the needle into the groove. He turned the volume even louder as the song’s harpsichord-inflected intro filled the room.
You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back, Where there is love/I’ll be there…
Following the electrifying debut of “I Want You Back,” the frothy exuberance of “ABC,” and the crackling whip-smarts of “The Love You Save,” one might have expected us to be disappointed by the relative calmness of this… ballad. Instead, we were drawn into a deeper world, one that was concerned with deeper subjects and even as eight year olds, we got that.
Hearing Michael Jackson’s voice soaring over the dense and ornate production with such conviction imbued us with that same confidence and authority. He was singing as a man, even if he was a boy. It provided us with a road map to a more sophisticated, grownup part of ourselves and even if it didn’t really point out the exact direction to us, it felt true.
When I hear the term Soul Music, I can still feel that same surge of passion and power that dropped me from the monkey bars to my head all those years ago. It is from the depths of their very souls that MJ and Marvin Gaye reached into and expressed from. Same for the Temptations, the Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, and dozens of other Motown artists. Ditto for the stars from other labels, like Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett. Even Englishmen have been guided by and displayed soul in their music, from the Rolling Stones to the Animals.
As I have followed my journey with music, I have come to find that soul is not a genre of music at all, but something we should bring to all music. A sincerity, honesty, and integrity that can bring any work of fiction closer to our hearts.
We spent the rest of that day with our friends David, Michael, and Keith Jackson (no relation) learning every lyric to “I’ll Be There.” As always, we developed and rehearsed our own choreography. Later in the week we had a show in the Jacksons’ backyard for all the kids in the neighborhood. The best part was performing the bridge, because Jermaine sang that section. Guess who got to be him?
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer who also provides recording, mixing, and mastering services through his company, Kitsch & Sync Production (www.kaspro.com)