In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The day after the Jackson 5 released “I’ll Be There,” their fourth national single and fourth #1, Michael Jackson turned 12. Even if you’ve been living your entire life with “I’ll Be There,” with the myth of Michael Jackson’s whole career, that’s fucking staggering. “I’ll Be There” is an almost painfully adult song, a song about regret and longing and warmth and support and mixed-up feelings. And Jackson sings it with an almost absurd grace, a sense of empathy and tenderness and understanding. He was doing this at an age when I was eating entire cans of frosting that I’d stolen from my parents’ pantry. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Before “I’ll Be There,” the three Jackson 5 songs that had hit #1 were all variations on the same thing. They were springy, funky, uptempo jams that reimagined the giddiest bits from Sly & The Family Stone, as reworked by Motown’s assembly-line geniuses and interpreted by a group of adorable, frighteningly talented children. This was a formula, and it was a formula that worked better than anyone could’ve ever anticipated. On “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” Michael Jackson and his brothers practically vibrate with excitement. That’s not what happens on “I’ll Be There.” “I’ll Be There” is something else.
Those first three songs came from the Corporation, the team of four Motown songwriters and producers who basically existed only to pump out Jackson 5 hits. For “I’ll Be There,” Motown founder Berry Gordy went elsewhere. Gordy was one-fourth of the Corporation, and he’s also one of the four writers of “I’ll Be There.” The “I’ll Be There” team included Hal Davis, who produced the song and who headed up Motown’s LA branch for a while. Willie Hutch, the Memphis soul legend who wouldn’t release his first album for another three years, also co-wrote.
The song itself is as shatteringly lovely as any Motown ballad. It’s a pledge to support and comfort another person, no matter what happens. We don’t find out the whole story until the third verse: “If you should ever find someone new, I know he better be good to you / Cuz if he doesn’t, I’ll be there.” With that line, the whole song shifts. We learn that we’re hearing someone singing about an ex, promising that he’ll drop everything and come running whenever his former love gets lonely. That line transforms it from a song of friendship to one of heartbreak.
But what makes the song is the way Michael and his brother Jermaine sing it. Even on the intro, before we know that he’s singing to an ex, Michael sounds lost and crestfallen. He’s dealing with complicated things here: the feeling of warmth and fondness that can come with the end of a relationship, the way love and need can coexist with each other. He captures all of it. He delivers it like a rapturous blues keen, his helium quaver meshing gorgeously with Jermaine’s more conventionally churchy groan. Even on the end, when he’s hitting those fired-up ad-libs — “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” — he still radiates loss. It’s beautiful and perfect and, in its own way, fucked up.
A song like “I’ll Be There” is central to the legend of Michael Jackson, both for being an amazing song and for what it represents. Here, this angelic child was singing these incredibly adult songs, doing them better than any adult ever could. Jackson was a global superstar as a small child, which means he never got to enjoy anything resembling childhood. Then, as a galactically famous adult, Jackson chased those childhood feelings that he never got to feel, remaking himself as an alien manchild. In that pursuit of what all his money couldn’t buy him, Michael became strange and creepy and tragic. He may have committed horrible crimes. He definitely died too young, overdosing on a drug he was taking to help himself sleep. All that transcendence came with a heavy price tag. And yet, after all that, after everything we saw, those songs are perfect. “I’ll Be There” is perfect.
BONUS BEATS: This column will eventually get to Mariah Carey’s 1992 MTV Unplugged version of “I’ll Be There,” which also hit #1. So instead, we’re going with a very different “I’ll Be There” cover. Here’s the version of “I’ll Be There” that snotty half-ironic pop-punk cover band Me First & The Gimme Gimmes released in 2003:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s former Girls frontman Christopher Owens doing a tender “I’ll Be There” cover in a 2014 college-radio session:
THE 10S: The Kinks’ gender-drunk love story “Lola” peaked at #9 behind “I’ll Be There.” It’s a 10.