*What did you do on your 11th birthday? As he approached his, Michael Jackson recorded a soul masterpiece.
Imagine in 1969, buying the Jackson 5’s debut Motown single, “I Want You Back”—-or getting your mother to buy it for you–taking it home, playing it enough times consecutively to drive everyone in the house crazy before turning it over, just out of curiosity, really, and on the B side—-the B-side!—-finding “Who’s Lovin’ You.”
Recorded in ’69, just a few days before August 29 and his 11th birthday, the ballad gave a tender young Michael the singular spotlight.
And I hated the song.
To my 13 year-old ears, “Who’s Lovin’ You” sounded like a lot of the old fashioned blues I’d hear at a friend’s house, played by their parents on the record player.
The tune was the kind of jukebox currency heard wafting out of any dark, dank, joint on Oklahoma City’s east side, a dusty neon sign hawking Budweiser in its window, that my best friend Donnie and I might roll by on our Sting-Ray bikes.
Unlike the combustive “I Want You Back,” which featured exciting, if meager vocal interplay by brothers Jackie and Jermaine, “Who’s Loving You,” which reduced the rest of the Jacksons to standard background doo-woppers, seemed nothing more than a throwaway track. It sounded like old folk’s music.
Maybe that was because “Who’s Lovin’ You” had in fact been written by an “old” guy (at least to a 13 year old), a 20 year-old Motown artist named Smokey Robinson. He and his group, the Miracles, were the first to record it, in 1960.
Just as the song was relegated to the B-side of the J5’s “I Want You Back,” years earlier Motown had also put “Who’s Lovin’ You” on the B-side of the Miracles’ first big hit, “Shop Around.”
After the Miracles recorded “Who’s Lovin’ You,” the ballad was cut three more times before the Jackson 5 covered it: the “No-Hit Supremes,” as they were called at Motown before becoming the label’s premier act, recorded it in 1961–yet again as a B-side–on the back of “Buttered Popcorn” (which had the rare distinction of Supreme Florence Ballard singing lead).
Label mates The Temptations recorded “Who’s Lovin’ You” for the 1965 Motown/Gordy album, “The Temptations Sing Smokey.” Two years later the song was recorded by Brenda & The Tabulations—-as, you guessed it, the B-side–of the group’s 1967 Dionn release, “Stay Together Young Lovers.”
The hip like to say the B side of the now largely extinct 45 inch single (some European labels still release music on them) was often the more interesting song. During the ‘60s/’70s heyday of the single, there are plenty examples to back this up. Indeed, it was Thom Bell, co-writer and producer of The Spinners’ 1972 hit, “I’ll Be Around,” who once told me the Atlantic label originally released the song as the B-side to “How Could I Let You Get Away.”
“I argued [with the label] about it, but they wouldn’t listen,” said Bell. “So I called up radio DJs that I knew across the country and asked them to play the B side. It caught on with listeners and that’s when Atlantic said, ‘Okay,’ and re-released ‘I’ll Be Around’ as an A-side single.”
Likewise, Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit, “I Will Survive”, was originally the B-side of the song “Substitute”. Radio DJs began flipping over the single, and a pop anthem was born.
Prince, who emerged in the late ’70s just in time to see the beginning of the end of the singles format, made an art of stocking his B-sides not with a previously released song or markedly less interesting material, as was the custom, but with A-side-worthy gems.
To wit: his song “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” a 1983 hit for Stephanie Mills and for Alicia Keys in 2002, originally saw the light of day as the B-side of Prince’s 1982 Warner Brothers hit single, “1999.”
Admittedly, my experience with singles is limited. My record-buying teens coincided with the rise of FM radio in the early ‘70s, when albums became musically more substantial than a hit single or two accompanied by filler tracks.
For me, to flip over a hit single to its B-side was to warily enter a dimension of musical mortality: how could the brilliant artist who made that great side A song be the same one who did…this??
As a kid, I knew nothing about the politics of the B side–the creative and business maneuvering that went into getting a particular song on the opposite side of what was chosen by the artist and label as The Hit.
For its part, Motown had the resourceful habit of having its artists record over and again songs from its Jobete music publishing catalogue. A-side, B-side, it didn’t matter–Jobete got paid either way. However, “Who’s Lovin’ You” seemed destined to be everyone’s B-side surplus.
That is, until singer/songwriter Bobby Taylor produced the song on the Jackson 5.
Taylor first saw the young Jackson brothers when, conveniently enough, they performed at Chicago’s Regal Theater, opening for Taylor and his group The Vancouvers, whose biggest hit was 1967’s “Does Your Mama Know About Me.” (Before Taylor, Motown singer Gladys Knight had told Motown about the Jacksons, but the label wasn’t interested at the time.)
As reward for bringing the siblings to Motown, label CEO Berry Gordy presented Taylor the opportunity to produce tracks on the group, most of which ended up on their ’69 debut Motown album, “Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5” (with the label using the Ross association as a marketing ploy).
Unlike the so-called “Bubble Gum” sound Motown would come to formulate for the group (“ABC,” “Sugar Daddy,” etc.), Taylor purposefully crafted for the Jackson 5 a mature, traditional soul sound.
I don’t remember exactly what changed my opinion of the J5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You.” Perhaps as a teen I found myself in a situation—-in my imagination, anyway–that reflected the song’s anguished, woebegone lyric. All I know is that after plenty random listens, one day “Who’s Lovin’ You” played and for the first time, I actually heard it.
As if I’d never encountered it before, I was taken by that fierce, bluesy Fender Rhodes piano intro that introduces Michael–who enters executing a vocal run for the ages, squeezing the word “when” until it weeps.
Over David Van dePitte’s tender, yet dynamic arrangement played by Motown’s famed Funk Brothers session players (including the incomparable bassist James Jamerson), Michael then proceeds to channel a grown man longing for his ex lover.
He sings with such emotional prowess, finesse and patience—-when it matters, he is artfully ever so slightly behind the beat—that you believe every syllable of this kid’s adult pain. It’s an already breathtaking performance made downright surreal by the fact that when he recorded it, Michael wasn’t even a teenager.
On the song’s bridge, his calculated “humph” ad-lib–said during the line, “life without love [humph] is oh so lonely” and designed to indicate introspection–offers the only suggestion that Bobby Taylor coached the young Jackson on how he wanted him to sing the song. When the recording session ended, surely Taylor had to know what he had on his hands.
Berry Gordy certainly did. He took one listen to the J5 cover and ever since has teased his lifelong friend Smokey that a 10 year old “kidnapped your song.” To which Smokey has readily agreed, all the way to the bank.
For my money, the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” stands as one of the greatest soul records of all time and arguably Michael’s best recorded performance.
Some would say the record is rivaled thematically and vocally by “She’s Out Of My Life”, a single from Michael’s 1980 album, “Off The Wall” (in the U.K. that B-side was another Jackson heart-tugging ballad, “You Push Me Away”). To me, “Who’s Lovin’ You” is a different kind of song, in a different league.
When “I Want You Back” was released, Black radio played its B-side almost as much as the hit. Since then, the Jackson 5’s cover of “Who’s Lovin’ You” has become the song’s definitive rendition.
Today, when singers record or perform “Who’s Lovin’ You,” they emulate the J5 rendition. Thanks to Michael, a B-side stepchild is a B-side no more.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]