The 16th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner here Monday was the ideal opportunity for the self-proclaimed King of Pop to begin humanizing himself--to start making us think of him again as an electrifying talent, not just a bizarre pop curiosity.
But Jackson, who was being inducted into the hall as a solo artist, missed the opportunity to create a positive buzz for his upcoming comeback campaign by refusing to perform even one song during the four-hour program at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
He certainly had an excuse.
Jackson, who hobbled onstage with the aid of a cane to give his acceptance speech, said he broke his foot recently while dancing, and so he couldn't perform. He then retreated to the wings after a few words of thanks--despite cries from the audience for him to sing.
Given his injury, he clearly couldn't have done a high-octane, dance-minded number such as "Billie Jean." But he could have sat on a stool for an intimate rendition of "Man in the Mirror," one of the most introspective songs in his repertoire, or maybe a new ballad--anything to combat the negative image that's developed in recent years.
That was a major missed opportunity on a night when Jackson was not only one of the few artists ever to be inducted for a second time (he was already enshrined as a member of the Jackson 5), but, at 42, also the youngest solo artist ever inducted.
The interest level was so high in the press room that a security official warned photographers at the start of the evening to behave when Jackson and boy band 'N Sync (who later inducted Jackson) came to the room.
"We are not going to compromise anyone's safety for the sake of a photo of Michael Jackson or 'N Sync," the official said sternly. "We have to keep some sort of order."
Jackson's failure to seize the moment Monday gave the spotlight to other inductees, including Aerosmith, Queen and Steely Dan, veteran bands that played like the experienced professionals they are. The evening's most endearing impressions, however, came from pianist Johnnie Johnson's humility, Paul Simon's words of thanks and Solomon Burke's incredible singing.
Of the three veteran rock bands being inducted, Queen, the British outfit whose career was torn apart in 1991 when singer Freddie Mercury died of AIDS, drew the most interest.
For its numbers Monday, the group's guitarist Brian May took over vocals capably on "We Will Rock You," while the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl sang with even more command on "Tie Your Mother Down." May and drummer Roger Taylor then invited Mercury's mother, Jar Bulsara, onstage to accept the award on behalf of her son.
The audience also responded warmly to the inductions of the Flamingos, the '50s R&B vocal group best known for the hit "I Only Have Eyes for You," and Mexican American rock singer Ritchie Valens, who was killed at age 17 in a 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson).
Inducting the Los Angeles native, Ricky Martin described him as someone who has "done so much for music and done so much for my culture." Valens has been eligible for the hall of fame since 1985, but he was passed over by voters who probably felt that his eight-month career wasn't substantial enough to warrant a place in the hall.
But Valens' family and fans have conducted a vigorous campaign to try to persuade the voters to rethink their position in view of his influence on artists such as Carlos Santana and Los Lobos.
Four of Valens' brothers and sisters were on hand to accept the award. Connie Lemos, 50, called her brother, "The pride of Pacoima! The pride of Latinos everywhere." Then she added proudly, "Viva Ritchie!"
Unfortunately, Martin's medley of Valens' hits--including "Donna" and "La Bamba"--was more typical of Martin's slick pop style than the rawness and innocence of Valens' no-frills rock approach.
Valens wasn't alone in having been passed over by the 1,000 hall of fame voters, mostly industry executives, musicians and critics. In fact, all eight of the evening's regular inductees had previously fallen short of votes. Under hall rules, artists become eligible 25 years after their first recording. That made Queen and Aerosmith eligible in 1998.
If family and fans played a key role in finally getting Valens inducted, Johnnie Johnson, who was inducted into the hall in the "sideman" category with guitarist James Burton, found his champions among other hall members, including the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. Johnson played piano on Chuck Berry's hits, but he went unnoticed in the rock world until Richards, among others, began pointing out the crucial role he played in designing the Berry sound.
In his acceptance speech, Johnson, 76, said he felt like the line from the song, "Amazing Grace," about once being lost but now being found. He said was driving a bus in St. Louis in the '80s when Richards found him and called so much attention that the pianist will perform some 100 dates this year.
Inductee Paul Simon contributed musically, especially on a spirited "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," joined on backing vocals by Dion DiMucci and Marc Anthony.
Even more engaging and illuminating was Simon's acceptance speech. The New Yorker, already a member of the hall for his work in Simon & Garfunkel, saluted dozens of influences in a carefully crafted, 10-minute speech that explained the specific impact of everyone from his bandleader father and Elvis Presley to Quincy Jones and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Unfortunately, much of it will probably be lost in the time constraints of VH1, which will broadcast highlights of the ceremony tonight.
One line VH1 will hopefully leave in is a slice of Simon wit regarding his estranged partner, Art Garfunkel: "I regret the ending of our friendship, and I hope that one day before I die we will make peace with each other."
Waiting a couple of seconds for the audience to respond warmly, Simon looked up and deadpanned, "No rush."
Island Records founder Chris Blackwell was inducted in the non-performer category by U2's Bono, who later teamed with Mary J. Blige on a stirring tribute to the late Bob Marley, one of Blackwell's discoveries.
Musically, however, the best was saved for last.
Solomon Burke, who is in his mid-60s, is probably the most underappreciated soul singer from the 1960s, but his induction should spur a revival of interest. Backed by many of the evening's cast members, Burke sat on a stool (Michael, take note) and sang his own "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" with such show-stopping power that no one dared follow. Drawing nearly a dozen members of the audience onstage, he turned the cold ballroom into a lively dance hall.
If only he could moonwalk.
Robert Hilburn is one of the 1,000 Hall of Fame voters and a member of the 76-person nominating committee.