Michael Jackson was only 11 years old when The Jackson 5 hit #1 with “I Want You Back”, their chart debut. Less than a year later, “I’ll Be There” became the group’s fourth consecutive chart topper, making them the first black male group to achieve such a feat. WK It was the group’s biggest hit and the most successful Motown single from their 1959-72 Detroit era, WK but it would be the last time the Jackson brothers would collectively peak in the pole position, but Michael would go on to hit the top slot thirteen times as a solo act.
Motown chief Berry Gordy decided for a change of pace after three upbeat singles from The Jackson 5. Instead of relying on the stable of Motown songwriters known as “The Corporation”, he turned to Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, and Bob West for this ballad. In the song, a man declares eternal dedication to a former lover, saying that she can always come back to him. Michael and older brother Jermaine share the lead vocal, but this is really Michael’s showcase. “Rarely, if ever, had one so young sung with so much authority and grace,” AMG bringing “perfect aplomb…to material that ought to be both more romantic and more dramatic than he could possibly comprehend.” MA
Michael also demonstrates how well he was learning from his mentors at Motown. His mastery of phrasing and “the way he oohs his way out of the choruses” MA are taken from Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson. MA “The harmonies rival those of the Temptations” AMG and he even ad-libs a line (“Just look over your shoulder, honey!”) in tribute to The Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”.
More than twenty years later, Mariah Carey scored her own #1 version of the song on the pop charts. It was a last minute addition to her 1992 MTV Unplugged appearance, performed as a duet with R&B singer Trey Lorenz. WK Her version was even more successful than The Jackson 5’s original on the adult contemporary and UK charts where it went to #1 and #2 respectively.