Todd Gray talking
Jackson's Photographer Todd Gray Shares Intimate Moments With the King of Pop
Posted: 10-27-09 12:00 AM
In an intimate chat with ESSENCE.com, Todd Gray, photographer and author of "Before He Was King," a tabletop book which documents the years he spent touring with The Jacksons from 1979 to 1983, shares some of his most intimate moments with the late King of Pop
He's Got the Power
In 1979, after graduating high school I headed to art school. At 17, I had already been published in Life magazine and was on tour with The Rolling Stones. By that time I had a really good portfolio of music concert images and CBS records (which is now Sony) really liked my work as I had photographed Gladys Knight and the Pips for them, and their managers loved the photographs and the way I handled myself. Little did I know, they also managed The Jacksons and before I knew it I received a call to photograph the group for their performances on "American Band Stand" and "Soul Train." When I showed up and went to their dressing room there were all of these people buzzing around Michael [Jackson]. I'll admit that I felt a little intimidated and immediately thought, I need to stay away from that situation. One thing I've learned is that you never want to get to close to the power because you might get burned, so I stepped back and kept my distance from Michael, but his brothers and I both went to Fairfax High School and that opened up conversation with Tito and Jackie and I was about the same age as them so we begin shooting the breeze. Later on, I started hanging out with Marlon and Jackie, but still decided to leave Michael alone.
He's Got Juice
It was obvious that Michael had the juice and everybody was attracted to it, including record executives, radio, just everybody—they weren't just following him, they were anchored to Michael. Again, I made a conscious decision not to socialize in that circle because I knew I was out of my league. That was a constant scenario, but Michael was dutiful and always had his management team and publicist by his side because Michael was genuinely shy introvert who was in the most public of professions, so he always kept a safeguard of record execs that would deflect for him and if anyone needed to get through to him they had to go through the label made filter. Mike had a game face and would speak few words in a soft voice and if someone from the media or elsewhere was making a request of him, he would whisper in one of his handlers ears who would then relay whatever message needed to be shared with that person. Michael did this because he didn't like confrontation and didn't want to offend or hurt anyone's feelings. Still his voice was not as soft as the one he often used in public, so I think Michael was also a little guarded. When I was on the road with them documenting, Michael was really critical of their performances and would talk about how they could improve their performances and he always did it in this soft voice. But make no mistake, when Michael spoke the buck stopped.
Once Michael was just surrounded by his family and friends he became the playful, trickster and jokester. Sometimes he'd call me up, disguise his voice, make up a name and ask me to do something foolish. He could mimic a variety of voices and played many pranks on me. One time I took pictures of him while he was in bed because he was late for a meeting I'd set up and wouldn't get up. He was like, "Todd, I'm gonna get you for that!" And he did. I'd forgotten all about what happened while he was performing one night and he'd told me to stand in a specific spot to take photos of him when he began singing that song. I did as I was instructed. So right before I go to take my position, Michael drops to his back and starts saying, "Help me, help me! I need some woman to touch me!" and every woman in that place collapsed on me. I was between them and Michael and I couldn't even get one shot in and he gave me this look like, I got you. Afterwards, I said you think you're so cute, and he says, "What do you mean, Todd?" I'm like, Mike that hurt; those people were crushing me and all he said: "Todd, the spirit just takes me sometimes and the spirit just took me." That's when I knew that was payback and that was the last time I stepped out of line with him (Laughs.)
Michael the Manchild
This man was such an enigma. I have never met anyone who is both exhibiting the quality of mature adult wisdom because he was wise in many ways and ye exhibit qualities of child. Michael was authentically a child. Try as I might, I could not resolve those two polar opposites in the same body. We went to Disney land a couple of times and sitting next to him in a rollercoaster Michael's screaming and I'm just as giddy and screaming and letting my child out without reigning it back in. I have to thank him for that. He made it okay to be a child around him and that was everyone in his camp, we all became childlike. Michael would create that air and space and you'd simply enter into it before you even realized it. Initially, I was resistant and had a professional attitude, but I realized he was more comfortable when I was playful and he could relate to me on that level. What was great about hanging with Michael is that I was allowed to escape by removing my own mask of adulthood and nurture my inner child.
Michael the Saint
I was able to switch gears and share opinions with Michael. I was a bit of a fashion hog, so he would ask me what to wear or I'd go through his wardrobe and pick something out for him. It was in those moments that he'd express his insecurity and deferred to me. I remember I had to tell him to take his Mickey Mouse hat off but he dug it and would say: "Oh, Todd, I like it; it's my favorite." What people might be surprised to learn is that Michael was not frivolous with his money in the beginning. He answered to a higher authority. I remember one time he found this statue he was lovestruck with and sent me to find out the price. When I came back and told him the cost he said that it was too much money. I couldn't believe it because this was when he was making great money. Because of his religion he constantly struggled and was mindful of getting things in excess and wouldn't even accept a birthday gift that I'd bought him because his religion doesn't celebrate or acknowledge them. I could see the utter disappointment when he had to reject the gift from me. Also, you couldn't curse around Michael or engage in any "locker room talk." I remember one time me and one of the other fellas on tour went out looking for women and when we got back Mike asked what we'd done for the evening. The guy I was with said: "We went fishing." Fishing? It took him a minute to catch on what the dude was trying to say but when he finally understood we laughed and it became our running joke that he'd ask us every time we saw him. "So boys, did you go fishin' today?"
When I first met him I brushed him off mentally, thinking he's a lightweight, a kid, but I realized he's a sharp cookie and had to give him his intellectual due. Some experts believe that you stimulate your creative intellect by connecting with your inner child and let go of cultural constraints. You become a clear conduit of creativity because you are relaxed and the ideas will eventually come. Michael wouldn't restrict himself and would go back and have this generative process and gain new and fresh insight. I remember I was doing a cover assignment for Time magazine and Michael was sitting in his home theater and had his legs propped up on the chair and I noticed that he had on two color socks and I said, "Mike, you have on two different color socks." Now, this was when Thriller was taking off and Mike's confidence was at its highest. He said, "I know, take the picture." And I said, "But, Mike, they're going to talk about you." And he replied with a raised brow: "I know, Todd. Take the picture." I knew then that I had been put back in employee mode and was no longer his friend. In that moment, it hit me that Michael had already begun to create his larger-than-life persona. And he was right, everyone talked about it.
Michael, He Is the World
I was in my Inglewood studio surrounded by Michael Jackson images working on editing the photos for my book when my wife came in and told me he'd passed. Then my son who's 23 called me up and was in tears and said how he'd missed him because he'd grown up with him. But it wasn't until I was watching that memorial and Magic Johnson said he was a better point guard because of Michael and that's when it hit me. Mike instilled excellence in you that inspired you to push on. When I worked with Michael we had several conversations about launching a book of children from all over the world. I realize that I have unfinished business I'm going to complete Michael's wish. On the flip side a few years after that he did "We Are The World," which culminated into a huge album.
"Before he Was King" is available in bookstores.