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DESPITE HITS, A LEGACY OF WASTED OPPORTUNITIES

By the time Berry Gordy, Motown Svengali, got his claws into them, the Jackson 5 was already a happening presence within African-American music circles in and around its Gary, Ind., birthplace.

A confident soul-R&B-pop sibling act, it was fronted by a child prodigy named Michael, and was under Gordy's ever watchful eye and forceful hand. The Jackson 5 became Motown's last gasp, a group whose potential power was undermined by overproduction, poor material and a marketing frenzy akin to that undertaken by overseers of the Beatles.

But during it all, the little boy who would become Michael Jackson shines. The kid could sing his butt off, and he did, whether it was in service of something legitimately funky and greasy like "Rockin' Robin," or something maudlin and cheesy like "I'll Be There."

Gordy, of course, had authoritarian instincts, and he exercised them with all his might on Tito, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael.

Unlike another Motown act, Marvin Gaye, the Jacksons didn't fight Gordy too much. Gaye rebelled, turned his back on Gordy, released "What's Going On" even after the label boss said that political and social commentary had no place in the Motown world of hit singles and sugary, substance-free craftsmanship and artistry.

The Jacksons, on the other hand, peppered three Motown albums with varying degrees of successful pop-R&B cross-pollination, interweaving the compelling nursery school soul of tunes like "I Want You Back," "ABC" and "The Love You Save," with melodramatic schlock like "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Sugar Daddy," all under the auspices of the production team Gordy referred to, without irony, as the Corporation.

By the time of the brothers' last effort for Motown, 1974's "Dancing Machine," the template had been laid for the beginnings of Michael's solo career, with middle-of-the-road attempts to marry funk, soul, pop and R&B with prominent dance-floor beats -- in our world, we refer to this as "disco" -- laying claim to the outfit's soul.

Soon, Michael would partner with Quincy Jones and create a series of recordings that were eminently crafted and studiously arranged. All hit their target -- the pop charts.

And while it has always been unfashionable to see Michael Jackson for what he is -- an extremely talented singer, a groundbreaking dancer, an incendiary live performer, a pop star on the MTV video vanguard. But really, he was a trifle in terms of his musical contributions to the world, an artist who is yet to give us an album on par with the best work of fellow Motown alums Gaye and Stevie Wonder. It seems reasonable, as this retrospective box set hits the streets, to do so.

What, after all, is Jackson's legacy? Making the world safe for kiddie stars to be exploited by seedy industry types? Disco? New Kids On the Block, Boyz II Men and *N'SYNC? Mariah Carey?

Ultimately, the story of Michael Jackson the musician and record-maker seems to mirror the story of Michael Jackson, famous persona -- one of squandered opportunity.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com