Sometime between the release of Jackson 5's first album (Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5) in late 1969 (coinciding with their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show) and the release of their Greatest Hits in December 1971, I became convinced that Michael Jackson was destined to be the greatest artist of our time... and I can prove it.
I can still picture this 11-year-old wunderkind in a purple velvet fedora performing "I Want You Back" like a seasoned professional. Who couldn't love that? Actually, a lot of people. Consider that it was not terribly cool to admire a young black male during the late 60s and early 70s. It was a time of civil unrest and protesting and drugs and rock and roll. And it all came to a head for me and Michael in the summer of '71.
Joe Snodgrass (his real name) was a Georgetown University bohemian (aka, hippie) spending his summer break in his mom's apartment in the building next to Lottie's Deli, where I worked for a $1 an hour stocking shelves, sweeeping floors and ringing up sales. Joe was a 6-foot something beanpole with horn-rimmed glasses, a quasi-perm, cut-off shorts and sandals who knew everything. And I was just a kid, 15, who knew absolutely nothing.
Anyway, one hot day during the summer of '71, Joe saunters into the store as he often did and begins his usual intellectual discussion about everything – the administration, Viet Nam, the toilet paper shortage. Lottie lets knuckleheads like Joe hang around because she is the greatest woman on the planet. And sometimes it is fun to have the company of these older guys around, but not today. Anyway, at some point, Joe hears me listening to the radio and not him, so he takes aim and fires.
"Jesus Christ, Sweeney, what is that bubblegum bullshit you're listening to on the radio?"
"Michael Jackson," I respond with disbelief.
"Fuck me; turn on WNCR and find some good tunes – Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, the Stones, CCR – anything is better than that pop crap you're listening to."
Here's the thing about me: I have always been a person of diverse tastes. Even at 15, I listened to my parent's Sinatra and Martin albums. And in my own collection I owned Cat Stevens, Four Seasons, Cactus, The Band, Elton John... I listened to both AM pop radio and FM rock radio. And I liked it all, so long as it was good.
But Joe was so smart and so annoying.
"Better than Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5?" I spit back.
"Sweeney, you know nothing... and you know even less about music," Joe calmly replied.
"Yeah," what a retort, "let me tell you what I do know. I know that Michael Jackson will sell more records than any of the stupid artists you listen to."
Now to this day, I can not say for sure if I was defending Michael or myself; maybe both. But it was out there now and there was no taking it back.
Joe laughed profusely. "How about the Beatles?" Wow, that question was so thick with sarcasm and condescension that you could chop it with a hand axe. "Do you think Michael Jackson will sell more records than the Beatles?" By now Joe was drooling in his own laughter.
"Yes he will," I stated with absolute confidence.
Egging me on, Joe asked: "How do you figure?"
"Well, in case word hadn't made it to DC yet, the Beatles broke up, so they won't be selling any new albums. And Michael Jackson is just getting started."
At that very moment, as if cursed by the gods, my older brother walked into Lottie's.
"Hey Junior," snaps Joe, "you've got to hear this. Your kid brother says that Michael Jackson will one day be bigger than the Beatles."
My brother Denny, who I always looked up to and admired, and who coincidentally was the person who told me about MJ's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show two years earlier, simply gave me a look and mocked me with sincerity: "What's wrong with you?"
That was 38 years ago, and it remains as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday.
Joe eventually graduated from Georgetown with a degree in Chinese linguistics and spent the rest of his life working in a county job. He is still a hippie and probably has no recollection of that special moment in time - partly because of his arrogance and partly because of all the weed.
My brother Denny is a retired Cleveland Detective. He still questions my sanity and I still admire him.
The Beatles never got back together to release a new album, but Michael Jackson eventually owned the rights to most of their music.
As for Michael Jackson and me, I stand by what I said in the summer of '71: Michael Jackson was destined to become the greatest artist of our time .
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