35 years ago today, Jackson stole the stage and made an indelible impact on pop culture with his solo performance on Motown 25, a televised celebration of the famous label’s creation.
Since Motown 25 was intended to showcase the label’s greatest hits, director Don Mischer and executive producer Suzanne de Passe initially banned every artist (from Marvin Gaye to the Temptations to Diana Ross) from performing new material. Jackson pushed back, wanting to perform a new solo song called “Billie Jean.” Mischer recalls the tense moment, saying, “Look if we let Michael do a new song, who’s going to take the phone call from Marvin Gaye on Monday saying, ‘Why did you let Michael do a new song and I couldn’t do a new song?’”
But that delicate game of politics was upended when Mischer witnessed Jackson’s rehearsal for his “Billie Jean” performance. “I think Linda Ronstadt was there, Smokey Robinson was there, Diana Ross was there, but the place was empty basically,” Mischer said. “So we watched ‘Billie Jean’ for the first time, the whole thing, the hat, the socks, the moonwalk - after that was over, we just knew this was incredibly special.”