How Branding Launched Michael Jackson’s Solo Career
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“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was the first big hit from Off the Wall, the album that first and finally distinguished Michael Jackson from the rest of the Jackson 5. And that phrase could also describe Mike Salisbury’s process of art directing what became Michael’s most iconic cover image. This is in spite of the fact that Epic Records used dumb and inappropriate title lettering and did a lousy printing job.
For the past half-century Mike Salisbury has successfully branded magazines and motorcycles, perfumes and theme parks, Levi’s and Gotcha, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. And, most notoriously, Joe Camel. Smokin’ Joe was actually the subject of my first Print interview with Mike, and was recently reprinted and deconstructed in Steven Heller’s Writing and Research for Graphic Designers.
Off the Wall was released in 1979, when Michael Jackson’s personal reputation had not yet been blemished. And since this year marks the 35th anniversary of Mike’s ushering in Michael’s coming out on his own, I got a behind-the-curtains account of Mike’s creative triumph over a variety of temperamental and logistical obstacles in order to produce his seminal image. And the man who branded the “King of Pop” wraps up the interview with an extended riff on his early career trajectory.
Mike Salisbury: George Harrison took more work. He wasn’t difficult but we were way out in Henley on Thames, England shooting film that was sent to London for processing then back to us at Friar Park, his estate, to review, then shoot more. It was a tight deadline and there was no way to get prints and retouching. And I had no concept. Nor did I get one from anyone else.
I wanted the cover to be a big deal portrait of just George, yet impressionist. Wandering through his ancient greenhouse one of the days I was there I went outside and saw him through a mossy broken window and had him move close to that and shot him with a longish lens to create, I think, an almost painterly portrait.
For the inside of the covers I used another long lens and from a distance shot him full figure, looking down, walking along a hedge, with him at the far left edge of the frame. Sort of Sergio Leone. That gave me a contrast to the full head shot. And, I think, it gave me two views of George Harrison not captured before. He went with my choices. No problem.
With George, Randy Newman, James Taylor, and Ricky Lee Jones I had the support of their producer, Russ Titelman. But no problems. The music business was very much teamwork. Unlike some jobs, such as the marketing of over 300 movies I worked on. That had a lot of voices and opinions on the client side, with a lot of input but also a lot of change orders.
I had Norman Seeff shoot Ricky Lee for me because she was perfect, with her own styling, for his style of glamor shot. And James had specific ideas, and to carry them out I again used Norman, to have the shots be technically perfect, to have James’ concepts read without any interpretation by the photographer.
I had Steve Harvey shoot Michael for me because we just got along.
Salisbury: To me he was no longer that kid on the Saturday morning kids’ TV show. He was a major performer. And I think he had to hold back not to upstage the rest of the headliner cast. I thought he needed to be positioned as his own star. He needed to be branded as Michael Jackson.
Dooley: How did you hit on the tuxedo metaphor to connect his emerging from his family’s shadows with Frank Sinatra’s early opening in Vegas?
Salisbury: Sinatra coming onstage in a tux said big deal performer. And I wanted Michael to taken as a big deal performer. And Michael got it.
Dooley: At first, his agent had rejected the concept. Luckily for you, Michael had been in the office throughout your pitch, but he was hiding behind the drapes. Did you find that odd?
Salisbury: It was odd but very cool. And businesslike that he was there to see the presentation. That was Michael Jackson.
Dooley: Why did he originally insist on shooting at the Griffith Observatory?
Salisbury: My only thought was it was the iconic teenage location: Rebel Without a Cause and that memorable scene there with the knife fight. But there was no way the classic deco architecture would not overpower Michael as an individual.
He was late for the shoot, roaring up the hill in a blue Rolls with his new driver’s license in his wallet and a dent in every fender. He had the tux on a hanger, and the loafers. Park guards continually patrolled the observatory and we didn’t have much time between their rounds.
Michael ran to the men’s room, but it was closed! Without a pause he went to the ladies’, changed, did his own makeup, and was out and ready. A real trouper.
The architecture of the entire building meant nothing to my concept but I had found a circular stairway on the side of a tower overlooking the Hollywood sign in the distance behind the bust of James Dean that might work as a simple stage.
I got Michael up a few stairs and he leaned against the wall of the tower and with the sun setting over the Hollywood hills behind him we got it just as the park guard was passing the observatory and on his way to our location.
Salisbury: It was a very typical ’40s, ’50s American young adult thing, but also emulated by Cary Grant, almost, I think, to offset his too-much handsomeness. I also wanted to use the socks and make it work for the concept.
Dooley: And why did you outfit him in a women’s tux?
Salisbury: He was too thin for a men’s fit. And most mens’ tuxedos didn’t have the style of Yves St. Laurent.
Dooley: After the Observatory shoot failed to capture the attitude and style you wanted, how easy was it to convince him to do a reshoot?
Salisbury: No problem. Michael Jackson was about getting it done right.
Dooley: So now you have a studio location, but it’s not working out. You walk outside, see a loading dock area, and get inspired. You give it a backstage Broadway theater vibe, and there’s your set. A neat bit of serendipity and creative improvisation. Do you recall another shoot that came together for you in the final moments?
Salisbury: Truman Capote wanted me to shoot him in his Palm Springs home to replicate the Cartier-Bresson shot of him on the back cover of his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It’s a photo which he said the world found so scandalous because of his age and the pose. After a day of doing that he took off the silly hat, gold rimmed aviator sunglasses and art director attitude and quit posing. And I said, “Just look at me.” And he did.
Salisbury: Gene Kelly did it to show off his footwork, with his white socks and loafers. But it was also to symbolize a young American in Kelly’s An American in Paris, which I wanted to symbolize in the look for Michael. Also, it put some personality and graphics into the picture, and contrast. And it offset the seriousness of the tux, as did my getting him to pose almost emulating the replica of Donatello’s David that Michael had in the foyer of his San Fernando Valley townhouse. I also had the glow airbrushed around the socks for a bit of magic sparkle that led to the real sparkling socks and glove.
And I got Michael to smile.
Dooley: As the branding developed you were asked about adding white gloves to his ensemble. Why did you suggest only one?
Salisbury: I thought two was a bit too Mickey Mouse.
Salisbury: I was surfing at the take-off point of that cultural phenomenon, and I created logos for surf companies like Gordon & Smith and Birdwell beach britches. I was hired as the first combination art director, illustrator, reporter, ad designer, copywriter for Surfer magazine.
Surfer art direction experience got me hired by Playboy as an art director in their classic period where I was fortunate to work on the classic “James Bond girls” cover. Next I was hired by Carson Roberts Advertising in Los Angeles; for one thing, because I proved could draw. I was sending them a comic strip as a resume, to work with Terry Gilliam just as he was working his way into Monty Python. There I created and produced not just print but TV, including my own animation.
At West I had the freedom of design. And also freedom to produce editorial concepts, take pictures, and hire the best creatives to make me look good. I marketed myself with that magazine and got jobs shooting for Vogue, Bazaar, Esquire, and the London Sunday Times. My West work also got me the album cover work.
A friend of Bellows recommended me to Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s publisher and editor, to art direct and redesign that paper as it was growing up. And West, along with my album cover work, got me hired as Creative Director of United Artists Records. At the same time! I had to quit one or the other. Eventually I quit both.
Leaving Rolling Stone, I was hired by Tony Seiniger [the Hollywood poster designer responsible for Jaws] to create motion picture marketing: posters, ads, title designs, and marketing materials for movies positioned to a new, younger market typified in some ways by the Rolling Stone reader, movies such as Star Wars. This led to me being hired as a Creative V.P. at Wells Rich Green Advertising at that take-off period of contemporary movies, to market films and fashion.
I was recommended to Foote Cone Belding Advertising at the height of their graphic advertising concepts for Levis, I think because of my graphic work and stylized fashion work. But I took them into realism, branding 501 with TV for the new Levis cut for women and the “Travis, you’re a year too late” commercial, working with the great Executive Creative Director Mike Koelker.
The exposure of West, Rolling Stone, and other major work also got me writing assignments for Forbes and Men’s Journal. I wrote about my work and pop culture, and about adventure travel by car and motorcycle all over the world. And that’s led to my now creating TV shows.
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