Since 1970, Michael Jackson had captivated audiences as the Jackson Five’s precocious frontman, dazzling fans with his smooth soprano and flawless dancing. But Jackson’s breakout moment came on March 25, 1983, during the taping of NBC’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV concert special, and it lifted him to a new and almost frightening level of superstardom.
The occasion was a celebration of Motown Records’ 25th anniversary, featuring reunions of both the Supremes and the Jackson Five at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Michael, 24, had recorded two platinum solo albums (1979’s Off the Wall and 1982’s Thriller) but had not yet established himself as a national phenom. His chance to change that came after a medley of Jackson Five classics. Michael dramatically stepped forward and whipped out a Spy vs. Spy fedora as the ominous thump of his No. 1 hit ”Billie Jean” filled the room.
What followed was stunning: No one had ever seen this Michael Jackson before. In a routine he’d created only the previous night, Jackson alternately moved like liquid and like a precision machine. He twirled, posed, pranced, slid, grabbed his crotch for good measure, and unveiled his now-famous what-the-hell-was-that moonwalk. ”The entire audience was caught in a spell,” said Suzanne de Passe, then a Motown executive and the show’s executive producer.
Much of the spell was cast by the moonwalk — actually a variation on a three-year-old step called the backslide. Jackson had reportedly paid a Soul Train dancer $1,000 to teach him the move, after seeing the combination performed on the program in 1981. Surely this was one of the great showbiz bargains of all time. When an estimated 47 million viewers — the largest audience ever to view a music special — tuned in to see Jackson defy physics by walking forward while moving backward, the consensus was immediate: This man was the most electrifying performer of his generation.
Fred Astaire called Jackson the next day to say, ”You’re a hell of a mover…an angry dancer.” By year’s end, Thriller had sold 22 million copies worldwide, on its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time, and Jackson was on his way to forging one of the most bizarre and spectacular careers in the history of entertainment.
March 25, 1983
While ”Billie Jean” ruled the charts, Robert Duvall was shining on screen in Tender Mercies. John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl was a best-seller, and 60 minutes ticked off the competition on TV.