Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: A Life Spent On The Charts

Chart Watch

I doubt that there was ever a major artist who cared as much about pop music statistics as Michael Jackson did. He followed the charts closely and took pride and pleasure in setting records on them. And he set many. His 1979 album Off The Wall was the first album by a solo artist to spawn four top 10 hits on the Hot 100. His 1982 album Thriller was the first album to spawn seven top 10 hits. His 1987 album Bad was the first album to spawn five #1 hits. His 1995 single "You Are Not Alone" was the first single to enter the chart at #1.

Combining Jackson 5 and solo hits, Jackson amassed 17 #1 hits on Billboard's pop singles chart, which puts him high on the list of artists with the most #1 hits in the rock era. The Beatles had 20 (and all four individual members had more on their own). Jackson's friend and one-time co-star Diana Ross had 18 (combining 12 hits with the Supremes and six on her own). Mariah Carey has also had 18. Elvis Presley, who Jackson emulated and whose daughter he married, also had 17.

Jackson had top 10 hits on the Hot 100 in each of the last five decades, which is remarkable for someone who was only 50 when he died. The Jackson 5's first hit, "I Want You Back," cracked the top 10 the very last week of the '60s. Jackson, of course, logged multiple #1 hits in the '70s, '80s and '90s. He kept his top 10 record alive in the 2000s (if just barely) when "You Rock My World" reached #10 in 2001.

It's not surprising that Jackson got hooked on the charts: He was fixture on them most of his life. Jackson was just 11 when the Jackson 5 first made the Hot 100 in November 1969. Before his 12th birthday in August 1970, he had sung lead on three #1 hits: "I Want You Back," "ABC" and "The Love You Save." (Two months later, there would be a fourth, "I'll Be There," which made the J5 the first group to reach #1 with its first four chart hits.)

Jackson last showed his chart muscle in March, when his 2005 release The Essential Michael Jackson topped Billboard's Catalog Albums chart, which ranks older albums. Jackson had topped that same chart for 11 weeks last year with a 25th anniversary edition of his landmark Thriller. The album sold 166,000 copies in its first week in February 2008. It would have entered The Billboard 200 at #2, but was assigned to the catalog chart instead. The album sold 712,000 copies last year, which made it the #2 catalog album of 2008 (trailing only Josh Groban's Noel).

Jackson's obsession with the charts, and with awards and fame, had a downside. The charts are a lot like a drug--It doesn't matter how many hits you've had, you always want one more. As long as you're doing well on the charts, those Wednesday phone calls with the new numbers are exhilarating. But as soon as you start to slip, they're a weekly reminder of your fading appeal.

Most of the chart records that Jackson set were connected to the trio of albums he recorded with legendary producer Quincy Jones from 1979 to 1987. Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad sold tens of millions of copies and generated a combined total of 17 top 10 hits.

Jackson was not quite 21 when Off The Wall was released. The album was a smash, climbing to #3 on The Billboard 200 and logging 29 weeks in the top 10. But it was just the dress rehearsal for Thriller.

Thriller, released when Jackson was 24, logged 37 weeks at #1 on The Billboard 200, the second longest run in top spot since the chart became a weekly feature in 1956. Only the 1961 West Side Story soundtrack had a longer run. (Ironically, Jackson's video for "Beat It," one of the iconic hits from Thriller, was an homage to West Side Story.)

Thriller logged 78 weeks in the top 10, a total topped by only two albums since separate mono and stereo charts were combined into one comprehensive listing in 1963. (Those two albums: The Sound Of Music soundtrack and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A.)

Jackson at his peak in 1983 and 1984 was as hot as Elvis Presley in 1956 and 1957 and the Beatles in 1964 and 1965. Jackson was the first African American to achieve this level of fame and celebrity. There had been other black superstars, of course, dating back to Louis Armstrong in the 1920s and Duke Ellington in the '30s. But Jackson experienced career heat of an intensity that top black stars of previous decades could only dream of.

It's hard to imagine now, but in the five years before Thriller topped the chart, only one African American artist had a #1 album. That was disco queen Donna Summer, who scored three times. But after Thriller, this became a common occurrence. Between 1983 and 1986, Lionel Richie, Prince & the Revolution, Sade, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Patti LaBelle all topped the chart.

Off The Wall and Thriller each generated back-to-back #1 singles on the Hot 100. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" were the key hits from Off The Wall. "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" were the stand-outs from Thriller.  Jackson desperately wanted his 1987 album Bad to surpass his earlier albums' achievements, and in one respect, it did. The album produced five consecutive #1 hits: "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" (with Siedah Garrett), "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Man In The Mirror" and "Dirty Diana."

Like the old saying goes, when you're at the top, there's nowhere to go but down. And each of Jackson's post-Thriller albums sold fewer copies than the one before it. To be fair, each of them debuted at #1 and spawned at least one top 10 single on the Hot 100. So none of them were duds. But the industry couldn't help but notice that each of these albums spent fewer weeks at #1 (and spawned fewer top 10 singles) than the one that came before. Jackson's last studio album, 2001's Invincible, logged just one week at #1 and spawned just one top 10 single, "You Rock My World," which peaked at #10. By superstar standards, that showing was respectable, but just barely.

Over the years, Jackson collaborated in the studio with a wide range of artists, from gospel greats the Winans and Andrae Crouch (both of whom sang on "Man In The Mirror") to rapper Heavy D (who appeared on his 1992 hit "Jam"). He also teamed with two members of British rock royalty: Paul McCartney ("The Girl Is Mine" and "Say Say Say") and Mick Jagger (who sang on the Jacksons' 1984 hit "State Of Shock"). He recorded chart hits with two former Motown label-mates: Diana Ross ("Ease On Down The Road") and Stevie Wonder ("Get It"). And he teamed with two rock icons: Eddie Van Halen (who played lead guitar on "Beat It") and Slash of Guns N' Roses (who did the honors on "Black Or White").

In 1995, after recording 30 chart hits with his brothers in the Jackson 5 (and later the Jacksons), Michael recorded a hit collaboration with his sister Janet Jackson ("Scream"). The song debuted (and peaked) at #5 in June of that year.

Jackson was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame twice, as part of the Jackson 5 in 1997 and as a solo artist four years later. He received a Grammy Legend award in 1993, but didn't live to receive their Lifetime Achievement Award, which is considered a more meaningful honor.

Jackson had both success and disappointment at the Grammys. In early 1980, Off The Wall was shut out in the nominations in key categories (to his dismay). Jackson won just one award that year, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

Jackson experienced triumph four years later, when Thriller nearly swept the boards. Jackson became the first artist to win eight Grammys in one night, including Album and Record of the Year. (Santana equaled the feat in 2000.) In 1986, Jackson and Lionel Richie won for Song of the Year for writing the all-star charity single, "We Are The World."

But in 1988, Bad failed to win a single Grammy. In a nod to his stature (and a desire for a ratings boost), the producers allowed him to perform two full songs on the telecast, "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Man In The Mirror." His performance was simply mesmerizing. So even though he went home empty-handed that night, he left behind one of the most impressive performance clips in the show's history.

Except for the Song of the Year award for "We Are The World," which was very much a special case, all of Jackson's post-Thriller Grammys came in the lower-profile video categories. In 1985, he won for Best Video Album for Making Michael Jackson's Thriller. In 1990, he won for Best Music Video, Short Form for "Leave Me Alone." In 1996, he and his sister won that same award for "Scream."

The bulk of Jackson's success came before Nielsen/SoundScan began tracking sales for Billboard in May 1991. But even in this era, Jackson has held his own. He has sold 21,737,000 albums in this time frame, which puts him at #47 among all artists. His 1991 album Dangerous is his best-seller of this period. It has sold 5,785,000 copies, which makes it #100 for the period.

Jackson's old songs and albums are sure to register on next week's charts. He is expected to make a strong showing on both the Hot Digital Songs and Top Catalog Albums charts. I'll have all the details in my regular Chart Watch blog on Wednesday.

The Fine Print: Some chart historians give Elvis Presley credit for 18 #1s, but after researching it thoroughly, I think 17 is the fairest count.

 

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