Entertainment behind the scenes
Michael Jackson becomes Motown’s latest fallen hero
The 50-year-old self-proclaimed “King of Pop” died of suspected cardiac arrest as he was about to launch a major comeback with a string of 50 concerts in London.
It comes 25 years after the death of another Motown alumnus, Marvin Gaye, who was also on the comeback trail. Gaye was shot to death by his father in a domestic dispute.
Jackson rose to fame as the youngest member of the Jackson 5, a group that Motown founder Berry Gordy was initially reluctant to sign. “He didn’t want any more kid acts because Stevie Wonder was more than a handful,” said former Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, who lobbied Gordy to sign them.
De Passe toured extensively with the Jackson 5, taking charge of their costumes, schooling, choreography and concert production. “Michael was very mischievous back in those days,” de Passe said, recalling that he loved to hide in closets and behind doors to scare unsuspecting targets. She dubbed him “Casper,” and when she saw him decades later mobbed by fans, she yelled out “Casper!” and Jackson immediately rushed over to give her a hug.
Jackson left Motown for the greener pastures of Epic Records in 1979, and de Passe said she last spoke to him about three years ago. She was on a retreat when she heard of Jackson’s death, and described the news as “the shock of my life.”
Until Thursday, Gaye was probably Motown’s highest-profile casualty. The tortured soul’s career was marked by drugs, divorce, label disputes and bankruptcy. Drugs, poverty, suicide and murder claimed many other Motown figures. A year before Gaye was killed, virtuoso bass player James Jamerson died in obscurity. A raging alcoholic who played on Gaye’s landmark 1971 album “What’s Going On,” Jamerson has since been deified by aficionados.
Other ill-fated stars include:
– Roger Penzabene, the co-writer of the Temptations’ mournful masterpiece “I Wish It Would Rain,” committed suicide in 1967.
– Hard-partying drummer Benny Benjamin, the backbeat of the Motown sound, was silenced by a stroke in 1969 after battling drugs and alcohol.
– Temptations co-founder Paul Williams, the heart of the group and lead singer on “Don’t Look Back,” turned to alcohol and was eventually unable to perform. Two years after quitting, he shot himself dead in 1973, while sitting in a car parked two blocks from Motown.
– Another troubled former Temptation David Ruffin, who sang lead on “My Girl,” died of a drug overdose in 1991.
– Early Motown star Mary Wells of “My Guy” fame died in 1992 of throat cancer. She endured poverty in her dying days, as did former Supreme Florence Ballard, who succumbed to a coronary thrombosis in 1976.