Saturday, August 9, 2008

Jacko's Buddy Feels A Little Paranoid

To say that Kenneth Gordy had connections in the music biz back in the 80s, would have been an understatement. But he went to great lengths to avoid anybody finding out about it until he had secured a recording deal and scored his first hit. His father just happened to be Berry Gordy, founder and chairman of Motown Records. But to avoid being accused of nepotism, Kenneth Gordy took on the pseudonym of Rockwell. Depending on what source you believe, Rockwell was either in reference to the name of a band Gordy was in during high school or he adopted the name because he believed he “rocked well”.

Either way, Rockwell was reportedly signed to Motown Records without the knowledge of his father Berry. The 19 year old singer also had another significant contact(s) in the music biz. His sister Hazel was married to Jermaine Jackson, and given also the fact that the Jacksons had recorded with Motown for so long, Rockwell was long time friends with both Jermaine and his brother Michael. Given that Michael Jackson was at the peak of his popularity in late ‘83, Rockwell figured that it couldn’t hurt to have the King Of Pop elect sing background vocals on a song that Rockwell himself had written.

‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ was, to Rockwell’s credit, a very good dance/R&B song, but what made it an instant hit was surely the obvious presence of Michael Jackson (and his brother Jermaine) singing the chorus line. The song rocketed up the U.S. charts in early ‘84, eventually peaking at #2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts. The fact that Rockwell himself couldn’t sing that well really didn’t matter, because Michael Jackson could sing and indeed was singing on the record, so it was guaranteed to go gold. It was after that gold status had been achieved that Rockwell confirmed the rumours of his family connections. By the time the song was released in Australia in April ‘84 it was common knowledge who Rockwell was but again it made no difference in the context of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ being a guaranteed hit (#12), the song also reaching #6 in the U.K.

The song was the title track on Rockwell’s debut album which sold well enough in the U.S.(#15), mainly on the strength of the lead out single, but sold poorly elsewhere (OZ#99/UK#52). Among the other vocalists to contribute backing vocals on the album were Monalisa Young and Terry DeSario. But it was fair to say that none of the other album tracks were that strong, the second single ‘Obscene Phone Caller’ reaching #35 in the U.S. but failing to chart elsewhere.

Rockwell had accrued enough credit from ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ to be unleashed in the recording studio for a second album. 1985’s ‘Capture’ did anything but in terms of attracting the attention of the music buying public. The first single ‘Peeping Tom’ missed the charts altogether, and is it just me or was Rockwell taking the whole ‘paranoid under surveillance’ theme a little too far? Come to think of it that particular theme may have been more appropriate for Michael Jackson’s career.

It must have taken some mighty persuasion from father Berry to encourage the suits at Motown to let Rockwell into the studio for album number three. ‘The Genie’ was released in 1986 but it, along with Rockwell’s recording career, was soon pushed back into the bottle.

Although Rockwell technically had a second U.S. Top 40 hit, he’s widely thought of as a one hit wonder. To his credit he did manage to reach the top on his own merits, but sadly lacked the substantive talent as either songwriter or singer to forge the sort of career that his buddy Michael had.

And just to add one more dimension to the family web of fame surrounding Rockwell, his half-sister is actress Rhonda Ross Kendrick, who happens to be the daughter of Diana Ross. Just goes to show it’s not always who you know, but what you know.

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