*I taught Michael Jackson how to dance
*I founded Shalamar

By Ogbonna Amadi, Entertainment Editor

In the beginning

I was born and raised up by a single mother and two sisters in Los Angeles in the projects in the East Side of Los Angeles and were raised, on food stamps in the 60s; food stamps are what you get from the government to take to the market to buy food rather than using cash money.

It’s a kind of government subsidiary for welfare. We never owned a car, never had money or anything like that but I didn’t even realize we were poor. My mother loved us and gave us everything we needed as far as affection, love, discipline, and education, she was a very intelligent woman and I owe a lot of what I am, if not all of what I am to her.

My mother was a classical pianist, (not famous), and she started gospel choirs in our neighbourhood, with the kids living in our neighbourhood. My mother, two sisters and myself would sing in church together on Sunday with my mother at the piano. I used to dance at home with my mother and my two older sisters. And as I grew older, the love for dance continued, it never stopped.

Birth of a dream

Well, not everybody was an entertainer back then. Everybody wasn’t making a demo. You had to be a star to go into a real studio to make a record back then.

Now we have affordable studios, on laptops and computers, back then there was nothing like that. So I was just expressing myself through our culture. Looking back then and now, I can see that our culture was really African. Our rhythms, dance, that’s what separated us from white America, that’s what we brought from Africa to America.

It wasn’t until I saw the TV show ‘Soul Train’ in 1971 on television that I knew and I saw my destiny. I decided I wanted to be a Soul Train dancer.

Before Soul Train, black people were just on TV being comedians and drug dealers chased by the police. They used black people to show that dark, negative image on American television. When I saw Soul Train, it was the first time I saw young black people looking good and doing what I loved to do most and that was dance.

So my whole life was ‘I had to be on Soul Train’,I had to be on that TV show. And I eventually became a dancer. Soon Soul Train started a record company and that’s what started the group Shalamar. So I owe a lot of my life to Soul Train as well. Even though I wasn’t getting paid, my career started from there because the whole world got to see us, even in Nigeria. Shalamar was the beginning of my professional career.

Rocking with Shalamar.

Well, I founded the group. Jodie Watley happened to be my dance partner so she was always going to be in the group but we were looking for another girl who could sing because e didn’t know if Jodie could sing. But I trained her, she auditioned for Dick Griffey and we said oh, okay we don’t need another girl, this is fine.

We started off with one singer named Gary Mumford that’s who we booked first but he didn’t work out. Eventually, I brought in Gerald Brown. At the same time I asked Gerald Brown to join, I’d asked Howard Hewitt  to join but he had other obligations so he declined.

But then the second time I asked Howard, he joined. The first hit that Howard made with us was called ‘The Second Time Around’, it was our first real single. It was ironic because, the second time I asked him and the first single was called the second time around.

We went on to sell 25million albums worldwide, and broke all kinds of records. They were calling us the replacement of the Jacksons on the R ‘n’ B music scene

As I danced on Soul Train, I had no idea that Michael Jackson was watching me. I couldn’t imagine that. I’d go back on Soul Train and dance periodically and Dick Griffey would tell me, ‘Jeffrey, you gotta stop dancing on that TV show you’re a star now!’ but I never believed that.

I’m a street dancer that is what I have always been. If I’d had stopped dancing, I’d would have introduced the backslide which is now called the moonwalk, I never would have introduced body popping. It’s on YouTube, me and two other guys dressed in black with newspaper.

That video shows the first time we did the moonwalk on American television. At first I never knew there would be the internet or that there would be a YouTube. I didn’t know that the things that I was doing then were going to be kind of a milestone in the entertainment industry. We were just doing what we did. It is funny because my dancing and my musical career have always coincided with each other.

Michael Jackson as my dance student

Shalamar, we were doing a series of concerts at Disneyland and then my road manager Stanley Dillard said, he said ‘Jeffrey, your student is coming to see you.’ I said ‘who?’

He said ‘Michael Jackson is coming to see you at Disneyland’ and I said, ‘really?’ So Michael brought little Janet Jackson with him and they stood on the side of the stage and watched because I was already doing the backslide on stage and body popping and people were going bananas. So Michael wanted to know this dance so he came down to watch us and the next thing I knew, I got a phone call and that is when I started teaching him in 1980.

But he didn’t do it the moon walk until 1983. I did it on Soul Train in 1979 and in 1982 on Top of the Pops on British television but Michael would do it a year later in the Motown 25th with Billy Jean.

We worked together from 1980 to almost 2000. The last job I had with him was in the late 90s’ and then I moved to Japan in 2000 and I’ve been in Japan since until now I’m in Nigeria.

The MJ experience

First it was unbelievable. Michael had a reputation for being very illusive and introverted. Suddenly  you’re just one on one with him, and you’re like, all right. Okay, I have to admit, at first I was star struck, of course I was. It didn’t take Thriller and Billy Jean for him to become a star, he was a superstar for the black community from the day one, so for me just being one on one with him was amazing. Our relationship was great.

We really had a lot of fun together and we talked about everything. He was very inquisitive so he asked about everything.

He and I are both virgos. I was born August 24th, he was born August 29th and we did not know that we were so much alike in a sense that I’m the kind of person who would wait for someone to propose to me. I had that problem with girls.

Girls are waiting for me to make the first move while I am waiting for them so a lot of times nothing happens. They think I’m not interested because I’m not jumping on them, but I just don’t jump on things like that. Our musical tastes were also very similar.

…And the beat goes on

Because I was Michael’s choreographer, everybody wanted me. I worked with the actress singer, Vanessa Williams, I did her debut video. I did Johnny Hughes debut video, I worked with Arnold Schwarzzeneger and Danny DeVito on the movie Twins, Baby Face,  LL Cool J, Will Smith for the Grammy’s, Japanese artistes that you wouldn’t know, UK artistes a group called Incognito, LaToya Jackson, Randy Jackson, Marlon Jackson, I didn’t work with Janet because I was Michael’s choreographer  and she had her own.

Getting on the Nigerian Idol stage

I bought my ticket in April and I said, I wanna know Nigeria. It didn’t just start then though. I had this idea two years ago, that Nigeria should be the new place for black people all over the world and I thought ‘if this nation gets it right and stands still, it could represent black people all over the world.

I came for a couple of weeks and wound up staying for three months, I didn’t leave until late July. Because I was here, the opportunity for Idol came about because they were putting it together. My manager, Tunde Babalola, connected me with them, we had a meeting and they couldn’t believe I was even here.

I went back home to Japan and they finally got together and organised it and I flew back here and became a judge on Nigerian Idol. I didn’t come to Nigeria to take something or get something, I came to be a part of the people. I came to give if they would allow me.

Because I took a leap of faith, I started off as a judge and now I’m the directing talent manager as well. There’s a lot on my table right now, some I can’t speak on because I don’t want to jinx it, I want people to see it when it begins to happen. I’m beginning to see my dream come true.

I didn’t just come to Nigeria as an entertainer. I want to be a part of the infrastructure, a part of helping bring the society together and make Nigeria better

. I’m only one person, there are a lot of politicians, a lot of activists who are working, but I will still make my contribution, as minute as it might be.

The Nigerian experience

First, I’d never been a judge in my life so I had to develop that very quickly. Also travelling to the different cities, Enugu, Calabar, Abuja, was amazing.

Nigeria has the biggest black population in the world! Would you imagine how many Michael Jacksons and Aretha Franklins would be here?  And to see all these talented people come was exciting! The biggest problem I had was rejecting people, because I feel it’s not up to me to tell a person what they can or cannot be in life, but now it’s my job to!

So sometimes it’s difficult for me but I try to do my  job and I try to be honest, but I’m not trying to degrade people or make them feel  belittled. I don’t think that’s part of it. I’m there to encourage people not to give them the hardest judgement.

Don Cornelius

He was a great man. The music has lost a real legend. I was in Nigeria when it happened and I cannot begin to say how much of a loss it was. He was a great man

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