The First Time Michael Jackson Moonwalked On Stage, The World Lost Its Mind
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever will always be remembered as the night of Michael Jackson's first moonwalk. The image of the King of Pop gliding across a stage is one of the most memorable moments in music history, and some may argue that the move changed the course of pop music. The 1983 performance wasn't merely the genesis of one of the most imitated '80s dance moves; it also showed MJ's gift for capturing the world's attention through meticulously crafted performances.
The origins of the moonwalk derive from breakdancing and early hip-hop techniques, but Jackson imbued it with personal flair and simultaneously influenced the next generation of fans and artists. This performance defined Jackson's career for decades and played an essential role in solidifying his solo career, making him one of the most famous singers and dancers of all time. The story behind Jackson's performance shows that the King of Pop wasn't always a shoo-in to steal the show - in fact, Jackson almost didn't make the bill.
Jackson Created The Routine And Directed The Crew On Filming It
From the camera angles to the lighting changes, Jackson meticulously planned every step of his Motown 25 performance. Before the act, Jackson gave a prepared short speech as a transition from the Jackson 5 medley he had just performed with his brothers. During the speech, assistant Nelson P. Hayes placed Jackson's fedora on the stage when the cameras were pointing elsewhere, making it appear as if Jackson had conjured the hat.
According to author Steve Knopper's book, MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, Hayes says, "[Jackson] must have made me rehearse that spot 20 times just to make sure that hat was going to be there, where it was supposed to be."
Jackson's costume had a dynamic design: the sequined jacket, silver shirt, and single glove - which had more than 1,000 rhinestones - caught the light and allowed Jackson to shine on stage. He also wore high-cuffed pants, white socks, and loafers - an outfit reminiscent of classic Fred Astaire routines - which created a silhouette that accentuated his every move.
- Photo: White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Accounts Differ On How Jackson Got Invited To Perform At 'Motown 25'
According to Rolling Stone, there are conflicting stories about how Jackson came to perform at Motown 25. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy had asked Jackson to play, but the musician declined, stating he preferred to watch the show as an audience member.
Another version says that Suzee Ikeda, a liaison for Motown and the Jackson 5, claimed Jackson and his brothers did not get an invitation at first. She later called Jackson directly and coaxed him to perform at Motown 25 with the Jackson 5.
Jackson Never Did The Moonwalk During Rehearsals
Jackson maintained the element of surprise by not performing his signature move during rehearsals. When he moonwalked in front of the live audience, it was the first time any of the producers saw it. Former Motown recording engineer Russ Terrana says of Jackson's act, "My crew just went, 'What the hell was that?' You could hear the audience going, 'Awwww-awwwww!'"
The other Motown artists backstage were as impressed as the audience, and many congratulated Jackson when he went offstage.
The Moonwalk Had Roots In Techniques Invented During Previous Decades
Jackson may have made the moonwalk a household name, but the move itself can be traced back to numerous well-known performers. There is a recording of tap dancer Bill Bailey doing the moonwalk back in 1955 at the Apollo. Famed mime Marcel Marceau had a signature routine called "Walking Against the Wind" that some say he taught to Jackson.
As a child, Jackson studied James Browns's moves, whose influence is evident throughout the Motown 25 performance. Others have credited performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway as having inspired the moonwalk.
- Photo: Stefan Bootin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5
West Coast Street Dancers Were Doing The Moonwalk Before Jackson
Jackson popularized the moonwalk, but West Coast breakdancers were doing similar moves before it became a worldwide sensation. Los Angeles dancer Boogaloo Sam is credited with creating the dance style called "popping" in the late '70s, and some believe the moonwalk directly stems from controlled, flowing techniques of popping.
Jackson helped display popping and locking dance techniques on the national stage through his performances and music videos.
- Photo: John Mathew Smith / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Jackson Performed 'Billie Jean' At 'Motown 25'
Motown Records aimed to revamp its declining brand by reuniting its superstars - including Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder - for a 25th-year-anniversary benefit concert. The Jackson 5 also received an invitation to perform at Motown 25 - allegedly with help from Motown's Suzee Ikeda - and Michael planned to produce a solo act after playing on stage with his brothers.
Jackson sang "Billie Jean" and performed his legendary moonwalk. The success of Jackson's Motown 25 performance hinted at how his album, Thriller, would become a phenomenon.