The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

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.

***

Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

HIT #1: October 13, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

In one episode of Hulu’s High Fidelity TV show, there’s a scene where a woman walks into a record store, wanting to buy a vinyl copy of Off The Wall for her boyfriend. It becomes a whole thing. The store has the record, but the people working there get into a whole discussion over whether it’s moral to sell anyone an album from a suspected child molester. (The woman keeps saying the word “alleged.” Everyone rolls their eyes at her.) Eventually, though, the clerks decide that they can sell it. Someone mentions the horn charts on “Working Day And Night,” and the power of the music just becomes too much to write off.

About a year ago, the day before HBO aired the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland, I was grocery shopping, and my local Kroger was piping “Man In The Mirror,” a song that will eventually appear in this column, in over the speakers. I wondered whether that would be the last time I heard “Man In The Mirror” while grocery shopping. The allegations in the documentary, the story of two men who claim that they were abused by Jackson as young boys, were too damning to ignore. It seemed possible that the world could end up looking at Michael Jackson’s musical legacy in a whole new way. It didn’t happen. Maybe Off The Wall is the problem. Maybe Off The Wall is just too good.

The last time Michael Jackson appeared in this column, I wrote it just after Leaving Neverland had aired. This made the song in question — “Ben,” Jackson’s first-ever solo chart-topper — difficult to even discuss. Jackson was a kid himself when he recorded “Ben,” and yet this documentary still loomed over everything he’d done. For maybe a month, I’d flip radio stations when Jackson’s songs came on — and Jackson’s songs were still coming on. Then I gave up.

Michael Jackson is wrapped up in the collective memory in a way that practically no other artists are. The stories in that documentary were horrifying, and it’s impossible to discuss Jackson’s legacy without all those allegations. And yet Michael Jackson has not disappeared from the culture. I’m part of the problem there. Jackson was the first pop star I ever loved, and I couldn’t shake the effect his songs had on me. I don’t feel great about this, but a year after Leaving Neverland, I still feel a giddy endorphin rush everytime I hear the swooping strings of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” It’s a perfect song, and its power, at least for me, is too much to write off.

Michael Jackson released Off The Wall a couple of weeks before he turned 21. It wasn’t his first solo album, but it was the first one where he got to call the shots. In that album, and in its glorious opening track, we can hear Jackson giving himself over to something larger, to some mysterious mystical feeling that pumps through his veins. That magic eventually led Jackson to become a figure larger than pop music itself — a myth to kids like me. It also probably also granted him the power to abuse people.

Jackson wasn’t new to pop stardom. Almost a decade earlier, he and his brothers had come out with one of the all-time opening salvos in pop music history. When the Jackson 5 signed to Motown, their first four singles — all bona fide bangers — had hit #1. No act had ever accomplished anything like this before; it would be decades before anybody else did. The novelty of the Jacksons, these kids who sang with unbridled joy and danced with military precision, faded soon enough, but they stuck around. Jackson had “Ben,” a lovely ballad about a killer rat from a B-movie. And the Jacksons became one of the rare Motown groups that found a way to thrive outside the Motown empire.

The Jackson 5, watching their career prospects dwindle and their hits beginning to dry up, decided to leave Motown in 1975. Michael — the group’s frontman even though he was still just a child — was the one who had to go to Motown boss Berry Gordy and tell him that they were leaving. The group changed their name to the Jacksons, and they signed with Epic, where they initially went to work with Philly soul masterminds Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. They weren’t guaranteed hitmakers anymore, but they didn’t fade away, either. They started to incorporate disco pulses into their music, and Michael started to take more and more of a leadership role. By the late ’70s, he’d started co-writing songs like the 1979 hit “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground).” (“Shake Your Body” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.) But Michael wanted more.

In 1978, Michael Jackson made his film debut, playing the Scarecrow and co-starring with his old Motown labelmate Diana Ross in Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz, a black-musical adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. The movie was a notorious flop, but Jackson loved the experience. When the movie was filming, Jackson moved to New York and started going to discos. At Studio 54, the shy Jackson would disappear into the DJ booth and dance by himself. The infamous Studio 54 scene wasn’t what mattered to Jackson. It was the music.

Jackson met Quincy Jones when he was making The Wiz. Jones, the veteran bandleader and composer, was producing the soundtrack. Years earlier, Jones had a moment as a pop producer. He’d produced Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” a #1 single in 1963. And then he’d gone 16 years without landing another #1. Instead, Jones had scored movies like In The Heat Of The Night and The Getaway. He’d composed TV-show themes, including the famous Sanford & Son opening music. He’d been an arranger for people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. He’d been busy.

At that point, Michael Jackson wanted to step out on his own and make an album, one that he’d control himself. Jackson’s father Joe, the manager of the Jacksons, agreed that he could do it as long as it didn’t interfere with what the Jacksons were doing. Jackson called Jones, asking him to suggest potential collaborators. Jones suggested himself. So Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson went to work together, making Off The Wall. The partnership worked out well for both of them.

Jackson wrote “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at home, singing the melody to himself over and over. He recorded a demo version of the song with his younger brother and bandmate Randy playing piano. (Randy had joined the Jacksons when they left Motown, replacing Jermaine, who stayed with the label and went solo. Michael didn’t play piano, so he told Randy what to play.) According to some reports, the percussion on the demo comes from Michael, Randy, and baby sister Janet, all of them shaking shakers and banging on glass bottles and cowbells with chopsticks. (Janet will appear in this column a whole bunch of times.) The whole song is practically there already.

When Jackson and Jones recorded the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” studio version together, they had some serious help. Jones recruited session-musician aces for the track: Guitarists David Williams and Marlo Henderson, drummer John Robinson, Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson. (The Brothers Johnson’s highest-charting single, 1976’s “I’ll Be Good To You,” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.) Randy Jackson once again played percussion. Sheila E. may have played percussion, too, though she’s not credited. (Sheila E.’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “The Glamorous Life,” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.) The keyboardist Greg Phillinganes suggested a bridge for the song, and he was probably due a songwriting credit. But on most pressings of the single, he merely got a credit as an arranger. In that famous 2018 Vulture interview, Quincy Jones said, “Michael stole a lot of stuff… ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ — Greg Phillinganes wrote the c section. Michael should’ve given him 10% of the song. Wouldn’t do it.”

But whoever deserves the credit, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is an absolute miracle of pop music. It’s as good as it gets. Jackson’s mother was scandalized when she first heard the song, since she thought it was about sex. And it might be about sex. But it’s more about the ecstasy of losing yourself in something greater than you, of giving yourself over. It’s vague and mystical: “Keep on with the force, don’t stop/ Don’t stop ’til you get enough.” (Jackson was a big Star Wars fan. The former George Lucas production assistant Nick Saxton directed the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” video.)

I’ve always heard “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” as a song about dancing. (The second verse — “Touch me and I feel on fire/ Ain’t nothing like a love desire” — tests this theory, but I think it mostly still fits.) I hear Jackson as a young man liberated. He’s coming out of a strange and sheltered childhood, and he’s hitting the club for the first time, feeling music coming through him, head spinning from the wonder of it all. That doesn’t necessarily mean that sex isn’t a part of it; that comes with discovering your own body, too. But I hear this, and I see Jackson in that Studio 54 DJ both, shutting out the clamoring crowd outside, losing himself.

You can easily lose yourself in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” The song scans, at least partially, as disco. (Off The Wall, after all, ends with a song called “Burn This Disco Out.”) But it’s not built around the singular drum pulse. It’s rhythms are smaller, trickier, more liquid. They’re full of pushes and pulls. The instruments all seem to be dancing with each other: the rolling and pulsing bass, the euphoric bursts of horn, the diving strings, the layers upon layers of percussion. The outro, where the guitars delicately weave in and out of each other, tapping out a sort of morse code, is one of my favorite sounds in the world.

Jackson just dissolves into all this. He sings it in an airy falsetto, letting the music push his voice all around. Much of the time, he’s near-buried in the mix; his voice fades out before the song does. He understands the beat. He becomes a part of it. On the intro, he mumbles bashfully, but when the beat kicks in, he lets out a triumphant whoop, and he stays in that register throughout. (His nonverbal yowls say more on the song than his actual words do.) Jackson sounds like he’s being lifted heavenward, like his soul is ascending.

In the years ahead, when Jackson become more famous than any person should be, his voice took on a harder edge. Even on his most ebullient songs, he sounded paranoid and trapped. None of that is there on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Instead, he’s still the same little joy-bursting kid from “I Want You Back,” finding new textures in his own voice and discovering new wonders.

I honestly don’t know where “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” fits in the narrative of the disco backlash that was changing the face of the charts late in 1979. The forces of history had conspired to push club music away from the #1 spot. I’m not sure whether “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” quite qualifies as a disco song or not, but it’s definitely dance music, club music. Maybe the disco backlash is the reason that “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” only spent a week at #1. Or maybe the disco backlash just couldn’t take the song down. Maybe “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” just had too much power.

Either way, it says a whole lot that Michael Jackson was able to use disco as a springboard into planet-dominating stardom even at the moment when the planet was getting sick of disco. Jackson will be in this column again.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Public Enemy sampled “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” on their song “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man,” the Flavor Flav solo showcase from the classic 1990 album Fear Of A Black Planet. Here’s the video:

(Public Enemy have never had a top-10 hit. Their highest-charting single, 1994’s way-underrated “Give It Up,” peaked at #33.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The group known as 2 Hyped Brothers And A Dog — which featured future Atlanta radio legend Frank Ski — sampled “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” on their absolute classic 1991 single “Doo Doo Brown.” “Doo Doo Brown,” a song I love deeply, was huge in Baltimore it absolutely shut shit down at my middle-school dances. The history of Baltimore club music is murky, but I think “Doo Doo Brown” helped bring it into existence. Here’s the video:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Producer Jermaine Dupri sampled “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” on Mase’s 1997 112/Jay-Z/Lil Cease collab “Cheat On You.” Here it is:

(Mase will eventually appear in this column as a guest. As lead artist, his highest-charting single, 1997’s “Feel So Good,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8. 112 will also appear in this column as guests. As lead artists, their highest-charting single, 2001’s “Peaches & Cream,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9. Jay-Z will eventually appear in this column. Lil Cease will not. As lead artist, Jermaine Dupri has never had a top-10 hit; his highest-charting single, the 1998 Usher/Da Brat collab “The Party Continues,” peaked at #29. As a producer, though, Dupri will be in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Michael Jackson’s friend Chris Tucker performing “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in the 2001 film Rush Hour 2:

(Also in 2001, Chris Tucker co-starred in Michael Jackson’s video for “You Rock My World.” “You Rock My World” peaked at #10; it’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Prince, the man who would arguably become Michael Jackson’s only true rival in the ’80s, covering “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at a 2015 show in Baltimore:

(Prince will eventually appear in this column.)