Former publicist remembers pop icon

Caleb Raubenolt

KSU prof worked alongside Michael Jackson

Assistant professor Eugene Shelton poses with a photo of him and pop icon Michael Jackson. Shelton worked at Motown Records as a publicist for Jackson. Rachel Kilroy | Summer Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Thousands of Michael Jackson’s fans flocked to Los Angeles’ Staples Center to bid the King of Pop a final farewell at yesterday’s memorial service. His former publicist, Eugene Shelton, wasn’t at the ceremony but reminisced inside his office in Franklin Hall about his days with the fallen superstar in the early stages of his career.

Shelton, now an assistant professor and alumnus of Kent State, worked alongside Jackson as a publicist for Motown records. After earning a degree in telecommunications in 1972, he was hired as a reporter for the Cleveland Press. By the turn of the decade, Shelton was living in Los Angeles and working as a publicist for major record producing labels such as Epic Records and Motown Records.

As millions mourn Jackson’s death, Shelton reflected upon working with one of the most influential names in the music industry.

Describe your relationship with Michael Jackson – how you became affiliated with him, as you came from Motown Records and Epic Records, and how you became his publicist.

My relationship with Michael was strictly professional. I was part of a publicity team in Epic Records, and our job was to publicize, promote and help sell “Off the Wall.” This was a major collaboration with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, and it was the beginning of his stature as a major solo artist. This wasn’t his first solo album because he released several with Motown, but this was his first solo album for CBS and Epic Records.

In the early stages of his career, what was his relationship like with the media?

I think his relationship with the media in the early part of his career was very popular, especially with teen magazines. In issues of Tiger Beat, Right On, Black Beat, he was always on the cover. At that time – in the late ’70s and early ’80s – for an African American artist to cross over to mainstream press, Michael was one of the pioneers of that. It wasn’t easy for African American artists to get into the Rolling Stone or the major mainstream newspapers.

Would you say he was well received by the media at that time?

I think so. I think it was the artistry, the accomplishments of seeing this young “man-child” singing and performing in front of so many people and being successful at it.

Then later came the phases, the transformations – physically and emotionally.

The first time I saw Michael Jackson, this new “physical” Michael was at the screening of “Thriller.” It was at the Westwood Theatre, and it was a major endeavor. We had the whole publicity team, all A-list actors and singers – it was a big deal. It was a 14-minute video, and the Michael Jackson who was on the screen at that theater, was not the Michael Jackson who was in the lobby at the end, meeting and greeting people. So that was a shock. I could not believe it. There was a time when Michael and I pretty much looked alike; We had the same complexion.

There are some psychological problems – some major psychological problems that people did not want to recognize. If a person went through so much to change their physical look and skin color, there’s something that they’re saying about themselves that they don’t like. It was more than just Michael wanting to look good.

As his publicist, did you have a sense of a personal relationship with him that allowed you to interpret these changes as anything more?

No. Again, I’d like to stress that my relationship with him was strictly professional. All of our meetings, when I was in his presence, were all professional and had to do with pushing and publicizing a record. I could look at it and have my own, Gene Shelton’s interpretations as to why he’s doing this, and always wanting to look at something in a positive way. But at the same time, a lot of what Michael did throughout his career – the behavior, his actions – trumped the artistic merit.

When I was asked today what I think his legacy would be, I would like to think that it would be about the great contributions he’s made to music. But you can’t ignore the charges against him, even though he was acquitted, and the physical changes he undertook in terms of his body.

Today, I want to look at Michael Jackson and I’m grateful for having the opportunity to work with him and be a part of this fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime history of a recording artist. But I feel a lot of sadness when it comes to Michael because he died at an early age, and the controversies and all those things will carry on. But I like to look at the contributions he made to music and the huge influence. And not everybody feels that way.

Some people just saw it as the emancipation of Michael Jackson and his freedom. Others saw it as, ‘Oh, poor Michael. Why is he doing that to himself?’ And to some people, no matter what he did, he was Michael Jackson – he was bigger than life.

You mention that it was a sad moment for you personally. What was your first initial reaction when you heard that he was going under cardiac arrest?

I didn’t know he was going under cardiac arrest. I was in Cleveland Hopkins Airport, flying to L.A. for the BET awards, and it was time for my flight to board. I glanced and saw Michael Jackson on CNN. I didn’t bother to read anything. I’m thinking, ‘This is Michael Jackson. This is a press conference about the tour or about the dates in London, and maybe they were pushing them back.’

I was not thinking about anything else. I arrived in Los Angeles, I called my son who lives there, and he says, ‘Dad, did you hear about Michael?’ And I said, ‘What?’ ‘He’s dead.’ And I said, ‘Oh no,’ and then it took me back to the screen (from earlier). No one on the plane talked about it. There was no mention at all about Michael Jackson. I don’t know that there was the reports out there about cardiac arrest. All I heard was that he was dead.

And how did you feel when you first heard those words come out of your son’s mouth, ‘He’s dead.’

On one hand, I’m not surprised, because there’s something about legendary people, and people who have gone through the type of things he’s gone through that maybe history will treat Michael as a tragic figure. So, it was a shock, but not a total surprise.

You expect, unfortunately, to hear something like that because Michael’s had some medical problems in the past and things like that. But you don’t expect him to die. Yet, it’s a reality. I didn’t expect that hopefully he’d live to be 80 years old and still doing the moonwalk. But I had to take a moment and say a prayer for him, because this wasn’t rumor. It was on the news.

With the heavy attention that yesterday’s funeral procession received, as well as the entire coverage of Michael’s death, would you criticize the media for its role in his passing?

I would think that if the media did not cover Michael Jackson and the memorial service at the Staples Center, the media would not be doing their job. I think the big argument has been that they’re focusing only on negativity, and not on all of his great accomplishments.

But when you think about the year 2009, at the end of the year, I think there are going to be content analyses and quantitative studies about images in media. Perhaps the two most dominant individuals are African American – the president of the United States and Michael Jackson. And I thought about it: before Michael Jackson, there was Jimi Hendrix, there was James Brown, there was Ray Charles. I haven’t seen, as far as an entertainer or public figure, this type of coverage since Princess Diana died. So it says there is an acknowledgment of his power and influence, but at the same time, if they ignored it, would they be doing their jobs? They know – especially the cable networks – that people are tuning in just to quench that Michael Jackson thirst; ‘I’ve got to see it. I want to know everything.’ You can’t just report the good, you have to cover it all.

Contact managing editor Caleb Raubenolt at [email protected].