One Hell of An Eye
The Official Blog of Mike Salisbury
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Illustration by Toril Bækmark

Richard Lecocq has released his newly published book, Michael Jackson KING, a detailed documentation of Michael Jackson’s historic solo career as the world’s number one entertainer from 1979 – 2009. Richard takes the reader through the exploration of how the albums, films, tours, TV appearances and collaborations with other artists were created and became a part of the legacy of this great entertainer.

Michael Jackson KING includes in-depth interviews with Steve Barron who directed the plate-shifting “Billie Jean” video; choreographer Vincent Paterson of “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White,” “Jam,” “Blood on the Dance Floor” and several TV performances; “imagineer” Rick Rothschild who worked on Captain EO; Matt Forger, the sound engineer from Thriller to HIStory; Buz Kohan, writer of the TV shows Disney 25, Motown 25, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 60th Celebration, Elizabeth Taylor’s 65th Celebration, and Tom Bahler, writer and arranger of “We Are the World” and “She’s Out Of My Life.”

In addition to those interviews Richard interviewed me regarding the creation of Michael Jackson’s image for the cover of his first hugely successful solo album, Off the Wall. The look Michael and I created together at that time was a graphic metaphor of his coming of age, of his stepping out as a man on his own.  Those images, the black and white palette, the socks and glove and all the other trademark elements we came up with, were kept in some form as the symbol of Michael Jackson throughout his career. His branding.

Black and white. Simple. Dramatic.

Michel always used  the look we created for Off the Wall as a logo.  A brand icon.

Until The Wiz I had only thought of Michael as the kid in The Jacksons and The Jackson Five. In The Wiz he was  grown up and a person of his own.  He out-danced, out-sang and out-performed the rest of the cast and with a personality bigger than the screen. I was struck by lightning–I knew the look for Michael. I  begged his agent to let me to create the cover for Off the Wall!

At that time, young Michael was a gangly kid with an Afro. Literally a kid. But I wanted to put that kid in a tuxedo – a tuxedo and white dress shirt, looking like Sinatra walking into the spotlight to the applause of a sold-out Vegas performance.

I was not only designing and creating a cover; I was branding a person.

From the Griffith Park shoot.

We tried several times to get the shots for the cover.  After a shoot at the Griffith Park Observatory under the Hollywood sign that didn’t work for me , we tried a re-shoot in photographer Steve Harvey’s Hollywood studio.  Nothing was happening. The photograph in the theatrical tuxedo, with the Gene Kelley white sox and loafers, needed something more than just a white background.

I needed a background to support the metaphorical symbolism of the tuxedo and the young kid with the big talent.

In an urban alley against an old wall of real brick, I directed Michael to be more animated in his pose. And I told him to smile. Voila!…Off the Wall.  Perhaps after the Great Wall and the Berlin Wall, one of the most famous walls in the world.  A wall I picked to be  our backstage alley door of a Broadway theatre.

I added the white glow to the socks for emphasis before the album cover was printed. Those, along with the black tuxedo pant cuffs and the black penny loafers, are the most iconic parts of the brand image and when the album was reduced to CD size, that was the most indelible visual, particularly in that smaller size.

The cover...

The printing of the original cover sucked.  The glow of the white socks was not handled to be as soft and cloudlike as I intended. Michael’s likeness suffered. Worse I was never asked to proof the printing.

And until an interview I did after Michael’s passing, one focused on my involvement in creating his look and the cover of Off the Wall, I never understood exactly what I didn’t like about the title lettering.  Looking at the CD back cover there was another –  newer – photo of Michael, still in a tux but in front of a faux brick wall.  He is holding a pre-school style chalk holder with a big piece of chalk in it as he affected a visibly awkward “Michael Jackson pose.”

Kindergarten chalk? Awkward pose?

Kindergarten chalk lettering on the original Off the Wall cover of mine? That’s what bothered me: another denial that Michael Jackson was not a child but a major entertainer.

Discussing this with Richard Lecocq I emphasized that I felt this lettering was as big a mistake as the printing quality of the original cover…and I wanted to redesign that title lettering in present time, for Michael Jackson KING.

Illustration by Toril Bækmark

So I decided I would. The kiddie school chalk was infantile and wrong but what would work? Graffiti? Wrong message at the time.

I discovered  Toril Bækmark, a  Danish illustrator. She created new lettering for me and, as a place holder, created this wonderful drawing of Michael, in that same pose he made for me for Off the Wall.

Michael would like it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Comments:

Hey, Mike – Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your story about Michael! Inspiring stuff, as I’m an art director in the early stages. I was drawing in my sketchbook this morning, and found a drawing I did from an old photo of you. Thought I would share and hope you’re having a rad spring so far! Daniel C.

Wow. Great. Thanks, Daniel. MS

Michael would have liked it! Mark A.

Thanks, Mark. MS

Great! Demian

Thanks! MS

Great story, Mike. All the best. Toril B.

Thanks, Toril. MS

This is wonderful, Mike. Thank you!! Hope you are well. Shari

Thanks, Shari! MS

Holy great! Received tracking info as well. Richard L

Cool. MS

Sweet swagger…Tim G.

Thanks, Tim. MS

Awesome! Great piece. It’s so cool that the many aspects of branding you developed for him, he kept. He always seems to have been a consummate professional besides his gargantuan talent. Something else struck me reading this piece. He must have been quite the humble genius to listen to others. Even though he was already a superstar since a young child, he obviously listened to you, keeping branding trademarks. This shows insight and great taste. :-) Judith Ellis

Thank you, Judith. MS

Very cool, thanks. Bruce T.

 

3 Responses to “Fixing Off the Wall”

  • Fairbanks Says:

    As always, Mike. . . great eye great creativity. Thanks for sharing.
    Fairbanks

  • Tim De Young Says:

    I respect MJ for his incredible talent. However,
    I do not own one MJ album, nor do I have any
    of his music on my Ipod. It just isn’t Rock
    and Roll. I grew up with Jimi, Janis and Jim.
    One can not listen to MJ loaded on pot which
    is a top priority for a full musical experience.

    R.I.P. MJ

  • Steve Smith Says:

    In what seems to be a prescient Salisbury signature, your take on detail and personal meaning speaks volumes on the inner thought processes of brand building.

    KUDOS MIke!