“What You Don’t Know” is a song off of the Jackson 5’s 1974 album Dancing Machine. During this transitional time for the group, Motown tried a variety of different musical styles on the now young adult group. This song was clearly created to explore a more disco side of the Jackson brothers, instead of the funk/soul direction of their previous album Get It Together. I believe that the boys handled most of these numbers well, and I feel this record was an early example of what they could do. Actually I should say what Michael could do.
This song, along with “If I Don’t Love You This Way” and the top-ten R&B single “Whatever You Got, I Want,” were recorded by Michael only. The trio of songs was originally intended for Michael’s 1974 follow-up to Music & Me but the album was later withdrawn and the tracks were given to the Jackson 5. These recordings were made before the majority of songs from this album were finished. Judging by Michael’s man-child voice on the record, I would say that the songs were recorded sometime in late 73/early 74. It is also possible that “What You Don’t Know” was recorded around the same time as the songs that would eventually feature on the Farewell My Summer Love album were recorded.
It’s very clear to me that Motown was possibly looking to reboot Michael’s solo career after the lackluster sales of 1973’s Music & Me. If they had released these three records as MJ solo tracks, that particular album by far would have been one of his most exciting and rhythmic solo albums to date. But all that changed when "Dancing Machine" exploded onto the charts in early 1974. All the attention from Michael’s album (and possibly Marlon’s) went directly into the Jackson 5’s follow up to Get It Together.
Now let’s get into the actual song, shall we? Right away, the song starts excitingly with its killer bass intro. I have never heard a song start off like this before! That particular bass line might have provided Michael with a little inspiration to create “Billie Jean” (along with Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)”). And the conga work on this record is also very nice (I always thought it was Randy, but this has been proven otherwise).
On the down side, I’ve always thought the lyrics were rather pointless. Michael tries everything he can to make the record interesting but the song seems to get a bit repetitive. Basically the lyrics are about the friends of a man who tell him to not worry about what his woman is doing when she is not around. I would have preferred if the songwriters had gotten more in-depth into what exactly was happening, but they never did in this record. Obviously, this track was based more on the catchy rhythm of the music and words, than the lyrics.
Essentially since this song is a solo recording, we hear lot of ad-libs from MJ. Because there are no background contributions from the other Jackson brothers, you get an early hint of MJ’s future vocal style on this song. He hits some pretty low notes for a 15 year old on the chorus when he does the harmony with himself (something he would do for many years subsequently as a solo act). I always thought it was Jermaine singing the low part on the chorus, but now I’m pretty sure it’s Michael since we’ve learned that this song was meant to be a solo recording. I especially love his low notes at 3:03 and 3:38. Nice range, Mike!
I have to say I do love the bridge section where it’s just the drums and congas stripped with Michael doing numerous ad-libs in this section (very Marvin-Gaye-ish, I might add). This portion of the recording has always been my favorite and I’m sure it was Michael’s favorite, as well, because it was the perfect opportunity to show his dance moves. Some very early synthesizer work is also included on the final part of the bridge, which help bring the record back to the hook.
One major thing I’ve noticed about this track for years is the edit in the recording (basically when the producers stitched two different takes together) that comes right when the chorus repeats once again at 2:02. And once again at 3:39 the record returns to the first hook section at 0:49. I came to this conclusion after hearing the identical snare drum rhythm parts for each section, as well as hearing Michael say the end of the word “but” at 3:39 when he says “But I can’t find” (the part was clearly cut off). This kind of edit was done on another recording off the album, “Dancing Machine.” (Can’t figure out which one… I will post the answer on the comments section below this post.)
Michael actually performed this song twice on television, once by himself, and once with his brothers (that’s a lot for him considering it was never a single). In late 1974, Michael made a solo appearance on Soul Train where he lip-synched his 3 original solo tracks for the Soul Train gang. Not much to comment about on this performance, except for the fact that he chooses to once again wear his infamous brown/orange outrageous hideous looking suit (originally introduced on the boys’ first appearance of The Carol Burnett Show, and worn occasionally on the first run of Las Vegas shows). Michael definitely takes advantage of all the space available on the stage without his brothers (but he does look slightly uncomfortable during the interview with Don Cornelius).
Three years later, in 1977, the brothers revived the song on the second season of The Jacksons television variety show. The brothers turn the heat up for this performance and, if there was any doubt that the original recording was an early example of disco, please watch this performance. Michael handles the lead with more confidence in this performance than ever. Even though the lead was pre-recorded for the show, it sounds like he is totally into the song. I’m pretty sure the song was performed on the early Jacksons’ tours in 1976-1977. It was probably very refreshing for MJ to sing a lesser-known song from his repertoire.
In the end, I feel “What You Don’t Know” was a nice album cut for the group. If more work had been put onto the lyrics, and perhaps if the song had been a bit shorter -- and more radio-friendly -- it could have been considered as a single for the group. Nevertheless, this song gave Michael an opportunity to show more of his frequent changing vocal style than ever before.
Next week's song hint: “Girl I took your love, for granted. I know, I know I treated you, so unkind.”
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Corey Sheppard, 20, has been a Jackson 5 fan since 1993. His favorite hobbies are listening to music, playing racquetball at the YMCA, and hanging out with friends. Corey’s life passion is centered on music. His latest project is an all-new production company shared with Robert White Jr. entitled "Ask About It Productions."