Saturday, September 11, 2010

Song of the Week: Maria (You Were the Only One)

by Corey Sheppard

Two weeks ago, I hit a ‘first’ by writing about Jermaine’s early solo lead on “My Cherie Amour.” This week I am once again hitting a ‘first’ by commentating on a Michael Jackson solo (Motown) number.

Now at first, I was pretty hesitant on writing about solo numbers from Michael, Jermaine, and Jackie, basically because I felt that the songs I choose should be strictly Jackson 5. But now, I feel that these songs need to be included as well. The Jackson solo tracks make up for a big part of the Jackson 5’s history. For example in 1972, two solo hits by Michael, and one of Jermaine’s, placed higher than all the Jackson 5 single releases that year. And occasionally, the Jackson brothers sung backgrounds for some particular Jackson solo numbers as well. So starting with this post, I will include Motown solo cuts from all three Jackson Brothers.

The Jackson 5 were the first Motown group that had certain members record solo albums and singles while still remaining in a group. This decision was mainly inspired by Donny Osmond (of the teen-group the Osmonds) who became a solo star while still in his group. I believe Motown’s goal for each solo album recorded by the boys, was to show the many sides and abilities of that particular Jackson . Instead of recording the typical two-and-a-half minute ‘bubble-gum soul’ number, most Jackson-solo songs were melodic-orchestrated ballads. Thirteen-year-old Michael Jackson led the pack with his debut single “Got to Be There” released in October 1971, and his debut album (of the same name) coming out in January of 1972.

When die-hard Jackson 5 fans first listened to Michael Jackson’s first single “Got to Be There,” they saw that Michael (or Motown really) had continued the ballad trend that the Jackson boys had picked up the previous year. Everything about “Got to Be There” gives you an easy listening R&B/pop feel until you reach the B-side. As soon as you hear the opening toms, of “Maria (You Where the Only One)” you know you are in for a different kind of musical journey.

This song is such an unusual number for Michael to sing. It really doesn’t compare to anything that the brothers had recorded at previously. It’s a song that goes a lot of places musically. It starts off with a very soulful blues feeling, then ends up an up-tempo pop- sounding ditty. Not a lot of artists would be able to pull this track off successfully. I can possibly hear The Four Tops singing this number, or maybe Diana Ross. Whoever sings it, would have to be prepare for a song with a lot of versatility.

This song was recorded earlier than the majority of tracks from his debut album. Since it was issued as the B-side of “Got to Be There” I would say it was recorded in the summer of 1971. The only thing that doesn’t surprise me about this record is Michael’s delivery. He sings this song with a red-hot passion. The use of double tracking on his voice when he sings “Maria” is a very effective tool, and it’s something that Motown had just started experimenting with. He makes the song what it is, in my opinion. I would not want to hear anyone else singing this song other than Michael Jackson because no kid (or adult even) could ever sing the blues like Michael Jackson.

The production on this track is very new and inventive for Motown. It starts off with the harpsichord instrument (something used very frequently for the Jackson 5 around this time) and the tom toms I mention before. Then it turns pretty funky with the heavy bass line and the use of the percussion instruments vibraslap and casbassa, (which gets very off tempo, from time to time). Also listen out for some kind of studio chatter in the right channel at 0.18. The haunting arrangement intensifies when beautiful strings accompany the track, making the mood even more dramatic.

Michael’s biggest shining moment comes at the final verse before the rapid finale. He totally takes advantage of the lyrics and put his all into it, which translates into a great vocal performance. But to be honest, the up-tempo finale (with it’s slightly Egyptian vibe, I might add) is my least favorite part of the record. It’s hard to go from just down-right soul, to an arrangement that doesn’t fit the mood of the track. The ending reminds me of something the Fifth Dimension would record in their heyday. Nevertheless, Michael still sings like “Maria” is farther and farther away from him, with each passing section.

Just like last week’s “To Know,” I was very sad to see that “Maria” wasn’t performed on the 1972 forum show (released on CD). I know Michael and his brothers would have totally worn this arrangement out. “Maria” seems to be a very popular album cut for Michael. So popular that in 2009 it was included on the remix tribute album to Michael entitled The Remix Suite. The remix is not bad at all, some of the instrumentation (such as the strings) are more isolated than in the original version, so for that reason alone, I’d recommend checking it out.

I’m very happy that this song was chosen as the B-side of “Got to Be There.” It shows that Motown was willing to take a chance on a new sound. It also shows that the company had full confidence that Michael would be able to once again, entertain his fans and attract new ones with his capabilities. So clearly “Maria” WASN’T the only one...

Next Week’s Song Hint: He’s no Prince Charmin’ but still he keeps tryin’ girl, you’re 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."


  1. Thanks so much for doing this song, Corey! I have great memories of buying the "Got to Be There" 45 and playing the B-side over and over again (which I liked better than the A-Side). I love the little catch in Michael's voice at 1:06, when he sings "Since you've [hic] been gone.". Man, is that ever a precursor of his adult style!

    I agree that this was recorded earlier than "Got to Be There." Don't you think that's Jermaine, double-tracked on backing vocals? The instrumentation of this song reminds me of "I'll Bet You" and I wouldn't be surprised if it were recorded as a Jackson 5 song around the same time.

  2. Thanks J5C!

    I'd say it's possibly Jackie and Jermaine at 1:29 singing Maria, but I'm not sure. It's also doesn't sound like them as much per say.

    Never noticed that at 1:06! Good ears J5C!

  3. I loved the very ending of the record. when Michael is saying 'I got-ta-at-teh' at 3:36. very much like himself in later years.

  4. I don't hear Jackie so much, but the backing vocals throughout sound like Jermaine to me. Do you think they're done by Motown studio singers?

  5. This is one of my favorite songs by young MJ. Thanks for choosing this one!

  6. love this song!..can u visit my blog..or leave a comment :)

  7. Thanks Corey!
    I love this song!
    I don't think I can hear a studio chatter in the right channel at 0.18, I might have to try listening with other earphones.
    Keep it up!!

  8. @ J5C, I think it's session singers on this track. The don't really sound like Jackie or Jermaine at all really.

  9. @ raisa

    it's mainly on the right channel. right before the ratchet hits. It sounds like some of the session players were chattering a bit. But it could also be the background singers as well...who knows? lol

  10. " kid (or adult even) could ever sing the blues like Michael Jackson." Hear hear! Corey you're a skilled surgeon, disecting the bewitchment in these records. I love the: "WHY??? WHY??? You keepa runnin' away??!!" Way past perfect.

    Jimmy Ruffin sang this song a year earilier on a single relased in Europe. This arrangement is sooooo much more creative with it's dark atmosphere. Sparse, like they made absolutely sure not to put in ANYTHING more then needed to convey each feeling.

    I think the arrangers got the sped-up last part from the Four Tops "You Keep Runnin' Away." Motown used to crib other songs in the catalog a lot, and it certainly sounds like it.

    And those have GOT to be minor chords... I like this YouTube clip of a guy playing his guitar chords over "Maria." Although he's often a little off-key, I can hear the chords in more detail:

    I think it's all background singers. And why is that single in the photo dated 1970 when it came out Oct. '71?

    As you wrote, excellent choice for the B-side of Got To Be There. They both feature harpsicords early on, but boy, that's where the similarity ends. A lot can happen in between side A and B. I guess he didn't do a good job of bein' there for her after all.

  11. Hey there JCC! Wasn't this single sold in a picture sleeve? Maybe the only one of Michael's at Motown. Stingy bastards.............

  12. Got to Be There wasn't sold in a picture sleeve. It's was Michael's
    third solo single, I Wanna Be Where You Are. (Now that I think of it, those titles mean the same thing.)

  13. @ first anonymous

    wow great detailed information provided by you. I only heard Jimmy Ruffin's version once, but boy his is just a little more haunting then Michael. I guess they didn't want to scared the young fans lol

    And wow never noticed that it sorta steals from the Four Tops 'You Keep Running Away'. Wow, it truly steals from it. Even listening to the flute arrangement on both tunes!! Great ear!

    Thanks for the compliments! Same to you too!