On Oct. 7, 1971, Michael Jackson first said "hello world" as a solo performer with the release of debut single "Got to Be There."
Throughout the previous year, he and his brothers in The Jackson 5 had made pop history, when each of their first four singles - "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" - soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Audiences of all ages and races couldn't get enough of Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and especially Michael, whose exuberant voice was far more dexterous and soulful than most pre-teens.
Motown Records clearly saw the potential in Michael's burgeoning career, and started assembling material for him to record as a soloist. His earliest solo sessions included covers of Bill Withers ("Ain't No Sunshine") and Carole King ("You've Got a Friend") and previous hits for The Supremes ("Love is Here and Now You're Gone") and Bobby Day ("Rockin' Robin").
But most striking of all was a tune written by Elliot Willensky, a former medical researcher who'd recently decided to follow his passion as a songwriter. Months earlier, a composition he co-wrote called "The Singer" made it onto The 5th Dimension's Loves Lines, Angles and Rhymes. Legend has it that the warm, romantic "Got to Be There" had been pitched to The Beatles to no avail - but it ended up in the hands of Motown's production team, and Michael gave it his all. Production from longtime Motown staffer Hal Davis and arrangements by David Blumberg (who'd worked on The Jackson 5's first three albums) sealed the deal.
The results were unsurprisingly stellar: "Got to Be There" reached #4 on the Hot 100 for the week ending December 11, 1971, just seven weeks into its chart run. (The top three slots were also occupied by soul classics, including Sly and The Family Stone's "Family Affair," Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" and The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her.") The track also hit #4 on the R&B charts, while Michael's 1972 full-length solo debut - also titled Got to Be There - reached #3 on the R&B album chart and #14 on the pop chart.
Michael would earn two additional solo Top 10 hits in 1972: "Rockin' Robin" (#2) and the gentle theme to the eccentric rat-based horror film Ben, which became his first of 13 solo chart-toppers. But it was "Got to Be There" that truly put the young Michael Jackson on the path to becoming one of the most popular entertainers not only in soul music, but across the globe.