Picture sleeve of single, 1987
Today would've been Michael Jackson's 51st birthday. Instead of hearing stories of Michael sharing dessert & movies with his children (like last year for his big 5-0), many fans are still mourning the loss of an entertainment titan. Rather than focus on subjects such as the disturbing coroner's report, it's best to honor his memory by keeping in mind the many gifts Michael had shared with the world. One of them was the hit, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You", a song that in my opinion captured Michael at his best as a singer and composer. It was a tune that stood head & shoulders above the pack of hits from the 1980s.
It was the summer of 1987. I had just finished my junior year and was preparing for the last two semesters at Ithaca College by attending summer courses (I was behind a few credits & wanted to graduate with my class). In between classes, I was employed at WQNY-FM as a part-time radio DJ. During that time, the radio hit parade was something else - Smokey Robinson had two top ten pop hits ("Just To See Her" & "One Heartbeat") while the UK group ABC paid tribute to the Motown legend with their smash, "When Smokey Sings". Soundtracks were big as well, from Los Lobos' "La Bamba" to the lineup of hits from the "Dirty Dancing" album.
But we radio geeks were waiting for the big one - the new single from Michael Jackson, the first release from the then upcoming long-player, "Bad". No one (at least in radio and music video land) had no idea what the first single was going to sound like. Was it gonna be a slammin' uptempo track like "Billie Jean" or a rocker such as "Beat It." Many knew that producer Quincy Jones & engineer Bruce Swedien manned the studio for the new music but what about the songs? Originals? Any Rod Temperton tunes? (he composed "Thriller", "Rock With You" and "Off The Wall" for MJ).
On a Friday night in July, this music maven's curiousity was satisfied when WQNY'S music director Mark Lobel received the advanced single of Michael's new single, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You". I was hosting the 7pm to midnight show when Mark gave me the tune with a warning - I could only play the record once during my shift because it was "leaked" to us early by one of the trade weeklies and stations were supposed to officially receive (and start airing) the single on July 20th (this was done to make sure that pop and R&B radio stations had their copies at the same time - the result of complaints from R&B radio that pop stations had better access to music from Black artists).
Mark also told me that "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" was a ballad and a duet.
Huh? A slow tune? No slammin' dance track? Siedah Garrett...didn't she sing on Dennis Edwards' "Don't Look Any Further"? Dang, Michael - what were you thinkin' or drinkin'?
Anyway, I went ahead with my show and around 9:30pm, I hit the play button & launched the record. I was intrigued with the synth fade-in that lead into the guitar/bass/piano interplay. After the intro came Michael's vocal...
"Each time the wind blows,
I hear your voice, so
I call your name.
Whispers in morning,
Our love is dawning,
Heaven is glad you came..."
This was no "The Girl Is Mine". Michael had taken a page from the Smokey Robinson Book Of How To Write Poetry To Music Without Even Trying (hell, Smokey would've been proud - but I digress...) Back to the song, Siedah's turn.
"I hear your voice, now
You are my choice, now
The love you bring.
Heaven's in my heart,
At your call, I hear harps
And they will sing..."
At first hearing, Siedah damned near sounded just like Mike but as the song progressed her voice became more distinct.
Everything about "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" was perfect -the lyrics, melody, vocals, instrumentation, arrangement and production. No wonder - Q brought in some big guns for the heavy lifting - Toto's Steve Pocaro & David Paich handling the synths with Greg Phillinganes, John Barnes on piano, Paulinho Da Costa supplied the percussion along with Nathan East on bass, among others. As for Siedah Garrett, she was an excellent choice for the duet. To think, Michael offered the spot to Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin AND Barbra Streisand prior to Siedah - and all three divas turned it down due to scheduling conflicts (to be fair, each singer was working on their own albums that were also released in 1987). I'm kind of glad each singer said no - having an additional heavy hitter would've shifted the focus more on vocal performance than the song's understated beauty.
Within two months after its release (official and otherwise!), "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" was #1 on the pop, soul and adult contemporary music charts simultaneously.
To me, the song was Michael's finest hour as a composer, singer and co-producer. It was a true reflection of what love is really all about - the willingness to share one's love and life with another unconditionally.
Thank you, Michael - for sharing with us your gift of song. Rest in peace.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” written by Michael Jackson, published by Mijac Music/Warner Tamerlane Music.