This week marks the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson's historic "Billie Jean" performance on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever TV special. Since DeepSoul looks at lesser-known tracks, we will mark the occasion in a different way by going back further than three decades. Many believe Off the Wall was Jackson's first solo album; in actuality, his 1972 album Got to be There marked his debut as a solo artist. While he continued recording with the Jackson 5, this early album hinted at his ability to carry a song solely on his shoulders. Few tunes exemplify this gift better than the beautiful title ballad.
By the early 1970s, Jackson 5 mania was in full swing. Noting how the Osmonds' Donny Osmond had gained success as a solo act, Motown founder Berry Gordy decided the Jackson 5's teen idol lead singer could bring in more money for the label. Thus Gordy assembled Motown's top songwriters and producers to assemble guaranteed hits for the vocalist. The dream team clearly wanted to showcase Jackson's precocious talent for singing anything from bubblegum pop ("Rockin' Robin") to pop/rock ("You've Got A Friend") to R&B ("AIn't No Sunshine") to, of course, Motown ("Love Is Here and Now You're Gone"). However, Jackson particularly shone on originals "I Wanna be Where You Are" and the title track.
Written by Elliot Willensky and produced by Hal Davis, the song began taking shape during recording sessions in June and July of 1971. The arrangement mimics the youthfulness of the singer, emphasizing the relative innocence of the lyrics. At just 13, Jackson croons with the confidence of an artist twice his age, knowing how to modulate his voice to dramatize aspects of the story. "Got to be there in the morning / When she says hello to the world," he sings, his voice dropping in pitch and volume on the second line. Teenage girls must have swooned when he softly vocalizes the line "And show her that she is my girl." Just when it sounds like the song will progress as a gentle ballad, the music crescendos, and Jackson's voice ascends: "Cause when I look in her eyes I realize / I need her sharing her world beside me."
Background vocals reminiscent of the Jackson 5 repeat the title phrase as Jackson croons the memorable lyrics. There's a simple poetry to lines such as "Got to be there, got to be there in the morning / When she says hello to the world." Willensky's words charm and yet express true love. The last words suggest something beyond Osmond's "Puppy Love": "I've got to be there so she knows / That when she's with me, she's home," he sings, his vocals soaring on the word "home." It's a deeply touching moment filled with tenderness. "Got to be There" is a masterpiece in songwriting and performance, a perfect vehicle for Jackson's burgeoning talents.
"Got to be There" officially launched Jackson's solo career, earning solid sales. Released as a single in late 1971, it reached number four on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B singles chart. The song then propelled the album to number three on the R&B charts and number 14 on the Billboard 200. He would release three more solo albums on Motown before jumping to Epic, where he truly broke through with 1979's Off the Wall. But "Got to be There" represents one of Motown's most beautiful and underrated ballads, and Jackson's mature vocals still astound.