June 26th, 2009
08:56 PM ET

I saw Michael sing – when he was just 11

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Paul Varian
CNN Senior Executive Producer

It happened on Aug. 12, 1970.  I was a cub reporter for United Press International with an ace assignment – covering an all-star Detroit tribute to the then ailing ex-heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

The entertainment was right out of the Motown Hall of Fame – everyone from Smokey Robinson to the Four Tops, the Temptations and one group I was then only vaguely aware of, the Jackson Five.

Bill Cosby was the master of ceremonies, the comedian Red Foxx performed in x-rated splendor and the sports world trotted out such luminaries as Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and basketball’s Bill Russell.

Though just three years after Detroit’s bloody race riots, blacks already were gaining a middle class foothold in a city whose main industry – autos – offered them high paying jobs.

Detroit’s last white mayor, Roman Gribbs, was also there that night but the large majority of the 12,000 who turned out were black – and the most celebrated among them arrived in the fleet of stretch limos that circled the entrances of the downtown Cobo Arena.

Though it was not reflected in my coverage, what stuck with me that night more than anything else was the incredibly dazzling performance of 11-year-old Michael Jackson, whose very talented four brothers even then seemed like nothing more than supporting players.  I had never seen anything like it before or since.

He lit up the stage with his irresistible smile, belted out songs sounding like a choirboy on steroids and energized the entire concert hall with his wildly acrobatic dancing that, to me, was the forerunner of break-dancing a decade later and a hint of what was to come in his own solo career and the music video revolution it accelerated.

Michael Jackson became an inspiration to music fans across the generational spectrum. My own youngest son, whose name also is Michael but is not a namesake, was not even born yet when I first got to see the Jacksons, but he became a rabid fan as a young boy and now writes music and plays in two different rock bands in New York.

“Once I heard ‘Thriller,’ that was it,” my Michael told me today.  “The only thing I wanted was a Michael Jackson jacket.”  He didn’t get it.

As a grownup now myself, I found myself posing for photographs at the entrance to the Neverland Ranch during a visit to relatives in California just a few years ago.

After the news broke of Michael Jackson’s death Thursday, I was telling somebody about my first brush with his fame and they asked if I had tried to interview him or any of the entertainers. I can’t remember, though I wish now that I had been that enterprising.

One problem I had was that I had to write two stories – one for the news wire and the other for the sports wire (This was before newsroom computers). And then I had to cover the overnight shift in the office.

When I got home from my current job Thursday night, I was thinking about blogging on this and went searching through my file cabinet to see if I still had the story.

I couldn’t find it so when I came in today, I did a Google search for the event to make sure I got the right date and see what details might turn up.

The first story I found was mine, as published by the Ludington Daily News in Michigan.  Now that’s a Thriller.

Filed under: 360° Radar • 360º Follow • Michael Jackson
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