5 Unexpected Michael Jackson Influences


MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper

Everybody knows James Brown and Fred Astaire were MJ obsessions from the time he watched a tiny black-and-white television in the middle of the night at the Jacksons’ family home in Gary, Indiana. But he also loved the following cultural heroes (among many others). More than one source in Steve Knopper’s “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson,” due June 28 in paperback, called him a “sponge” soaking up influences.


  1. Shields and Yarnell.MJ had a well-known friendship with Marcel Marceau, the late mime, even collaborating with him on a mid-’90s HBO special that never aired. But as a toy-obsessed kid in the Jackson 5 in the early ’70s, he had the opportunity to befriend famous mime Robert Shields, half of the Shields and Yarnell troupe, and hang out in his giant home toy collection. “I trained him on the Robot,” Shields tells Knopper in an exclusive interview, referring to MJ’s early “Dancing Machine” body-bending moves. “Michael first saw the Robot from me, period. He took it and made it his own.”


  1. “Soul Train.”The Jackson 5 appeared on the hallowed dance show numerous times to sing “I Want You Back” and other famous songs, and as MJ grew older, he began to absorb moves from regulars like Damita Jo Freeman and Patricia Davis. The Jacksons summoned some of the dancers to their home outside Los Angeles for lessons, and Michael recorded them with his video camera. “It was a playtime for Michael,” Freeman tells Knopper. “He always had cameras in his den.”


  1. Bob Fosse and “The Little Prince.”A meme went around Facebook showing the great choreographer Fosse’s moves in the 1974 movie “The Little Prince,” which MJ watched repeatedly. MJ obviously used his poses, gestures and struts in the moonwalk — and several sources confirmed the connection to Knopper — nearly a decade later.


  1. Jackie Wilson.When the Jacksons were recording with the great soul producers Gamble and Huff in Philadelphia in the mid-’70s, they dropped by Hahnemann University Hospital to visit the “Lonely Teardrops” singer as he lay dying. Wilson was in and out of comas at the time, so it’s unclear whether MJ was able to talk to his longtime hero about how much he influenced his early dance moves. Possibly influenced by the encounter, the subsequent Jacksons album, “Goin’ Places,” contained the first MJ grunts, hollers and scats that would become his trademark for the rest of his solo career.


  1. Children.While preparing to produce Diana Ross’ 1982 single “Muscles,” MJ, as he often did, sang and spoke into a personal tape recorder to document musical ideas in his head. “I want the biggest drum sounds we can get! Fool around with different sounds! Experiment! Bring to the studio things that influence me — like a child, or pictures of children,” he told himself. “Tell all my musicians what I’m looking for — the best — and don’t settle for less.” MJ would say for years, in interviews and songs, that he didn’t have a childhood and wanted to experience childish things as an adult. He pursued this philosophy to his peril, without considering the consequences of spending time with numerous children in public. A court found him not guilty of molestation in 2005.


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