40 Years Ago, Michael Jackson Lifted the 1984 Grammys to Their All-Time Highest Rating (And He Didn’t Sing a Note)

Without a Jackson performance to trumpet, the producers had to get creative. And they did.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards, Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 1984.

The producers of the 1984 Grammys knew they needed to book a performance by Michael Jackson, who in 1983-84 was hotter than anyone had been in pop music since The Beatles in 1964-65. The need was made even clearer when the Grammy nominations were announced in early January, and Jackson set a new record with 12 nods.

There was just one problem: Jackson didn’t want to do it. As Ken Ehrlich, who was producing the show for the fifth year (of a remarkable 40-year run) put it in his 2007 book At the Grammys!, “Even after his record nominations, Michael hadn’t said yes to performing, and without him, it could be wildly embarrassing.”

In an attempt to stave off that embarrassment, Jackson’s manager arranged what Ehrlich called “a very quiet, discreet meeting at his home for us to talk about what we wanted to do. We sat, Michael barely talking, and when he did, directing his words to the manager, and I knew that we were up against it. No matter where we went, it wasn’t going to be satisfactory. I left very discouraged.”

Ehrlich had allies who were trying to convince Jackson to do it. As Ehrlich wrote: “The people at Epic Records, Michael’s label, wanted him to perform. His father wanted him to perform. [His sister] Janet, with whom I was then working at [the TV series] Fame, talked to him about performing. But no matter what kind of pressure was applied, there was no budging Michael. He wasn’t going to do it. … Even Quincy Jones, a great friend of the Grammys, was unable to sway him, and we went into the Grammy show Michael-less.”

John Denver hosted the show that year, promising “a show so hot it’s going to pop if we don’t get right into it.” I was at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles that year covering the show for Billboard and remember it as a lively and entertaining show. A Jackson performance would have lifted the show even higher, but it did phenomenally well as it was. The show was seen by more than 51.67 million viewers – an all-time record for the Grammys that is unlikely to ever be broken.

Why was Jackson so resistant to performing on what was clearly shaping up to be his big night?

For one thing, he probably knew he didn’t need to perform to dominate the night. So, why take the risks that are in inherent in a live TV performance? (Taylor Swift may have made the same calculation when she declined to perform on this year’s ceremony.)

Also, Jackson may have been spooked by a widely reported accident that happened when he was filming a Pepsi commercial at the Shrine on Jan. 27. During a simulated concert, pyrotechnics accidentally set Jackson’s hair on fire, causing second-degree burns to his scalp.

In his book, Ehrlich suggested another reason: “And then we discovered that, as with other artists, he had felt mistreated in the past by the Grammy voting process, and this was his way of getting back.”

Jackson had indeed been underrecognized by Grammy voters. The Jackson 5 (and later The Jacksons) never won a Grammy. Jackson had never previously been nominated in a “Big Four” category – album, record and song of the year plus best new artist. Even the blockbuster Off the Wall was passed over for an album of the year nod. Jackson’s only Grammy victory to that point was a 1980 win for best R&B vocal performance, male for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” So, he had a right to feel he hadn’t gotten his due from the Academy.

Jackson had also opted not to perform at the American Music Awards, which were also held at the Shrine (his home away from home that year) on Jan. 16. In his absence, Barry Manilow performed The J5’s “I’ll Be There.” Jackson had performed on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever special which was taped on March 25, 1983. That was the show where Jackson moonwalked publicly for the first time during “Billie Jean” – a performance that brought him a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Jackson, who was 25 at the time – and as it turned out, halfway through his life – could not have been hotter than he was in 1984. His every move made news. The way it is with Swift now, it was with MJ back then, and he didn’t have a high-profile romance fanning the publicity flames.

Though Jackson didn’t perform on Grammy night, there were many cutaways to him, as he sat in the front row, accompanied by his date for the night, actress Brooke Shields; Emmanuel Lewis, the 12-year-old star of the hit sitcom Webster; and the legendary Jones, who produced Thriller (with Jackson credited as co-producer of three tracks). Lewis’ presence was an unspoken reminder that Jackson had also been a child star, landing his first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 at age 11, fronting The Jackson 5.

Jackson dressed regally, as if seeking to live up to his preferred appellation, the King of Pop. (Writing in Rolling Stone decades later, Andy Greene took a less respectful tone, saying he looked like “the captain of the disco navy.”)

Near the top of the show, Denver explained that the big buzzwords of the past year had been “videos, Boy George and Michael…” Denver didn’t even need to finish the sentence. Fans in the audience screamed out the star’s last name.

Jackson won a record eight Grammys in 1984, seven for his work on Thriller and one for narrating a children’s recording, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. That’s one more than Paul Simon had won in 1971, the year of the first live Grammy telecast.

Jackson won five of the eight awards on the telecast – including two in categories that are rarely presented on-air – producer of the year, non-classical and best recording for children. He and Jones were co-winners in those two categories, and in two other categories that Jackson won on the air that night – album and record of the year. So, the two men, who were 25 years apart in age and looked very much like father and son, made a lot of trips up the stage together.

Without a Jackson performance to trumpet, the producers had to get creative. They booked performances by all five of the nominees for best pop female vocal performance. That smart decision gave the show a thematic element that Jackson was not part of, which helped to broaden the show’s focus. It helped that the nominees in that category that year were exceptionally strong and varied.

Donna Summer had the first performance of the night with her terrific hit “She Works Hard for the Money,” which she performed wearing a pink waitress outfit. (She wore a similar outfit on the album cover and single sleeve.) It was a big production number and got the show off to a rousing start.

Performances by the other four nominees in the category were sprinkled throughout the show. Bonnie Tyler sang her thundering power ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Linda Ronstadt, backed by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, crooned “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” the 1928 Gershwin tune that was a highlight of What’s New, her hit collection of standards. Sheena Easton sang her trendy “Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair).” Irene Cara performed “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” which was so good you could forgive it for borrowing so heavily from the Summer hit playbook.
Four of these songs had been top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The exception was Ronstadt’s ballad, which was featured on an album that stunned the industry by spending five weeks at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 over the peak holiday sales period. The award went to Cara, who went on to win an Oscar for best original song on April 9 for co-writing the song.

In an unfortunate development, the first three winners on the telecast were no-shows, because the artists were on tour, we were told – Sting for song of the year for “Every Breath You Take” (the only Big Three award Jackson didn’t win); The Police for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocal for Synchronicity; and Duran Duran for best video album for Duran Duran. (The fact that the latter category was presented on-air was a sign of the times. Two and a half years after MTV’s debut, video was driving the music business.)

Fortunately, Jackson and Jones were in the house to accept the fourth award of the night, producer of the year, non-classical, which was presented by Toto, the previous year’s winners in the category.

Jackson shared the spotlight on his five trips to the podium, calling up his sisters – Janet, then 17; La Toya, 27; and Rebbie, 33, as well as CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff (“the best president of any record company,” Jackson said of the man who strong-armed MTV into adding the “Billie Jean” video). In a poignant moment, Jackson remembered R&B pioneer Jackie Wilson, who had died five weeks earlier at age 49. “Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer. He’s not with us anymore, but Jackie, where you are, I’d like to say I love you and thank you very much.”

The 1984 Grammy telecast was just the second to run three hours. CBS had bumped the Grammys from two to three hours the year before so they could have extra time to mark their 25th anniversary. The show has run three hours (or more) ever since.

The 1984 show marked the first time in 12 years that the Academy presented lifetime achievement awards. They had probably stopped because of severe time constraints on the telecast, but now that they had more airtime to fill, they were able to resume this tradition. The 1984 honorees were rock pioneer Chuck Berry, then 57, and, posthumously, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Berry, who had blazed a trail for Jackson and other Black superstars of the modern era, performed his 1955 classic “Maybelline,” after which George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan performed “Roll Over Beethoven,” before all three teamed for “Let It Rock.” In his performance, Berry did his famous duckwalk. How great would it have been to have the duckwalk and the moonwalk on the same show?

Herbie Hancock performed his instrumental hit “Rockit.” The performance replicated the acclaimed video, which was directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. As Ehrlich recounted in his book: “We located the original robots [that were featured in the video], worked on a system of making them work live (it had taken four days to tape the video) and it was far and away the performance of the show. The crowd loved it.” “Rockit” went on to receive a video of the year nod at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards later that year.

Wynton Marsalis, 22, performed both jazz and classical numbers, underscoring his versality. He was the first person to perform songs nominated in two different genres on the telecast. Marsalis wound up winning for both best jazz instrumental performance, soloist and best classical performance – instrumental soloist or soloists (with orchestra).

The show cut away twice to London where Boy George of Culture Club and Joan Rivers provided comic relief. In their first segment, they read the rules (an awards-show custom that seems to have fallen by the wayside). Rivers offered a humorous explanation for reading the rules: “Every one of the nominees out there should know why they lost out to Michael Jackson.”

Rivers’ jokes were topical, at least, including a reference to a MJ/Paul McCartney song that had topped the Hot 100 for six weeks in December 1983 and January 1984. “I am thrilled to be on a music show because I know very little about music. I thought the song ‘Say Say Say’ was Mel Tillis trying to do the National Anthem.”

In their second spot, Culture Club was awarded best new artist (over Eurythmics, among others). The presenters were Cyndi Lauper, the previous year’s winner, and Rodney Dangerfield. Boy George’s acceptance speech was an instant classic: “Thank you, America, you’ve got taste, style and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”

Cross-dressing was a recurring theme on the show. Annie Lennox was dressed as Elvis, complete with sideburns, for Eurythmics’ performance of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” which had been a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100.

Walter Charles, from the company of the Broadway smash La Cage Aux Folles, performed that show’s standout song, “I Am What I Am,” in full cross dress, joined by cast member Jamie Ross. The show’s stars Gene Barry and George Hearn did not make the trip to Los Angeles, a decision they may have regretted when they saw the ratings. La Cage went on to win the Tony for best musical on June 3.

Denver teamed with Floyd the Muppet (Jerry Nelson) of The Muppets to perform “Gone Fishin’” from their album Rocky Mountain Holiday, which was nominated for best recording for children (and lost to you-know-who).

Other performers on the telecast were Big Country (doing their pop/rock hit “In a Big Country”), The Oak Ridge Boys’ (the Hot Country Songs-topping “Love Song”), Phil Driscoll (the classic Christian hymn “Amazing Grace”) and Albertina Walker with the Pentecostal Community Choir (“Spread the Word”).

As is often the case with Grammy telecasts, the show honored the past, while looking to the future. Jones announced that year’s five inductions into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including such immortal hits as Glenn Miller & His Orchestra’s “In the Mood” and Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

The Academy’s then-president Mike Melvoin held up a vinyl LP and then a shiny silver object and announced “This is the new compact disc.” Despite Melvoin’s enthusiastic pitch, CDs didn’t surpass LP sales until 1987 and didn’t surpass cassette tapes to become the top medium for music until 1991. Melvoin also announced a trustees award for the late composer and conductor Béla Bartók.

The show was not glitch-free. As Ehrlich relates in his book, Summer’s limo had stalled blocks away from the Shrine. Summer, who was set to perform the opening number, got out of the limo and hot-footed it to the venue. “She ran into the house, winded, about two minutes before the hard wall rose on the number,” Ehrlich remembered. “But it was a big score.”

Mickey Rooney (another former child star), who co-presented the award for best cast show album, hammed it up to the point that director Walter C. Miller asked Ehrlich “to go out onstage and pull him off, anything we could do to end this embarrassing moment.” In his book Ehrlich wrote, “To this day I can’t tell you whether Mickey was a little hammered or he’s just that way.”

Classical clarinetist Richard Stolzman, who was set to present the classical awards, had been ill-served by the accountants working the show: “He opened the envelope to find it empty, and vamped … until one of the accountants rushed out onstage to give him the right envelope,” Ehrlich remembered.

The glitches and Jackson’s decision not to perform were forgotten when the ratings came in.

Will the Grammys ever reach such a vast audience again? It’s highly unlikely. The only Grammy telecast that got anywhere close to the 51.67 million who tuned in in 1984 was the 2012 telecast, which attracted 39.9 million viewers. There were two main draws that year – a red-hot Adele, who won six awards, and Whitney Houston, who had died the previous afternoon. Viewers wanted to see how the Grammys would handle something they couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

Rewatching the 1984 telecast 40 years later, I was struck by how much the Grammys have changed. Most obviously, back then the show was still held in an auditorium. It first stepped up to arenas in 1997. Also, back then the show still attempted to cover all genres on the telecast, including jazz, classical and gospel. It still attempted to give on-air recognition to the winners of pre-telecast awards, something that became more difficult as the number of categories ballooned. There were 67 categories in 1984. There were 94 this year. And the show was not as fast-paced. Clip packages, showing the nominees in each category, went on much on much longer than they do now.

I was also struck by how many of the night’s biggest stars are no longer with us – Jackson, Denver, Summer and Cara, as well as Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albertina Walker and Walter Charles. I guess 40 years is a long time, though in some ways it seems like yesterday.

So, was Jackson right to decline to perform on the biggest night of his career? That’s impossible to answer, but here’s what Ehrlich wrote in his book, which was published two years before Jackson’s death: “To this day I wonder whether the show that he saw up on the stage that night made him feel as though he had missed the boat by not performing. On the other hand, he was to perform a few years later and give one of his greatest-ever television performances, so perhaps he was right in spurning the 1984 show since the Academy had done the same to him in previous years.”

Indeed, Jackson performed two songs – “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” – on the 1988 Grammy telecast, which was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York. His performance that night will always stand as Exhibit A to anyone who wants proof of his artistry and command when he was at the peak of his powers.

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