TUPELO – Despite the germ masks, the accusations of child molestation and the increasingly bizarre circus that was Michael Jackson’s later adult life, Northeast Mississippi fans are choosing to remember the music the King of Pop left behind.
Michael Jackson, 50, died June 25, and while the media speculates on what caused his death, his fans are focusing on their memories and the glory days of the singer.
For Tupelo resident John Oxford, 32, one of his earliest memories is of Jackson: He saw the entire Jackson family on its “Victory Tour” in 1984 in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It was my first concert, and I was a child, so everything was so big,” Oxford recalled. “He did the moonwalk, and everybody went crazy. And I do remember a lot of the women were fainting. You saw that on TV, but I saw it in concert.”
He saw Jackson again in 2001 when he performed a benefit concert following Sept. 11.
“He was such a perfectionist – he came out and did the set, but he didn’t like it, and because it was being filmed for TV, he had the audience locked in and… he did the exact same set of songs twice,” Oxford said.
Oxford doesn’t consider himself a Michael Jackson fan these days – “I’m a fan of the music, not of the man,” he said – but those memories of his first concert are fun to remember.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” Oxford said. “I remember I went back and bragged to everybody. It was a neat experience.”
Stan Allen, a DJ with Power 92.1 Jamz and WACR and co-host of Brother to Sister Talk Show, met Jackson twice, once in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and again in Texas in the late ’80s.
“He was very quiet, but he was very cordial,” Allen said.
Allen grew up with Jackson’s music. “When I was a kid, I tried to emulate the Jackson 5,” he said.
Charles Ross saw the Jackson 5 in the early ’70s in Cincinnati and said the experience affected him profoundly. Not only was the concert entertaining, but it also showed him that young black men around his own age were embarking on an unprecedented era of possibility in the music business.
Ross, director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi, said the group’s crossover success was emblematic of the ascendancy of black artists under the Motown label. Jackson carried that crossover appeal into his career as a solo artist.
That’s how KZ103 DJs Tawny and Kevin Russell knew Michael Jackson, as the solo superstar.
“When I was in the fifth grade, we had to put on a school program called ‘Remembering the Hits.’ We did two Michael Jackson songs, and I actually sang ‘Beat It,’” Russell said. “They made us (Michael Jackson) gloves. I thought I was so cool that I had a glittered glove like Michael Jackson.”
Tawny recalled seeing Jackson’s breakthrough music video, “Thriller.”
“I remember the premiere of ‘Thriller,’” she said. “I was sitting in front row, center, watching.”
Blue Springs resident April Perea, 32, also grew up with Jackson tunes. Her earliest memories are of her mother listening to Jackson 5 records.
“When I was in Brownie Scouts, we had a sleepover, and I remember everybody was doing the ‘Thriller’ dance together,” she said, laughing. “We had it down, too.”
After being accused of molesting a 13-year-old in 1993, Jackson’s behavior became increasingly bizarre and the once-ubiquitous pop icon tried to stay out of the public eye. The tabloid press feasted on his strange antics and when he did appear, fans were aghast at how radically he’d changed his appearance.
Ross, like many fans, blacks in particular, wondered, “Where is Michael going with this?” and why he seemed so displeased with his appearance. He speculated that Jackson, who was always shy and thrived on acceptance, simply became unreasonable in his obsession to “make himself palatable” to the masses.
Still, said Ross, Jackson maintained an iconic stature in the black community and his tremendous contributions to charity, estimated at nearly $500,000,000 over his lifetime, are a particular source of pride.
“What a man does in his personal life, that’s between him and God,” Russell said. “The number one thing to remember is the positive, which is his music.”
Apparently fans are doing just that. His singles and albums fill the charts once again, and Tupelo’s Album Alley sold out of all its Michael Jackson music the day of his death, said assistant store manager Jonnny Holland. The store created a waiting list of about 40 to 50 customers who wanted more Jackson tunes.
Perea’s been digging through Jackson’s videos as a way to remember him.
“His videos cannot be denied; they are masterpieces,” she said. “Two or three days before (his death), I listened to my ‘Thriller’ CD on the way to work. It’s still relevant. It’s a great album.”
Jackson’s dancing and showmanship was unmatched, Allen said.
“His style of dance was bigger and better than everyone else’s,” he said. “When you saw Michael Jackson, you saw a singer and an entertainer.”
“He was an incredibly gifted entertainer, from a very early age,” said the Rev. Robert Jamison, president of the Lee County NAACP. “He’ll be a living legend. Say what you will, he’ll be more popular in death even than he was in life. Michael Jackson will be remembered as a living legend.”
“I don’t think Michael Jackson will ever be topped, not in my lifetime,” Allen said. “People said there’d never be another Elvis, and then came Michael. But I think his legacy will always be his music. He’ll always be remembered as the King of Pop.”
Sheena Barnett and Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal