Mike Salisbury: the Man behind the White Socks and Glove
King of Pop in the Making !
Famed designer Mike Salisbury, the man behind the imprint on a multitude of diverse products from HALO, the world’s most popular video game, Rolling Stone, Surfer and Playboy magazines to O’Neill and Gotcha surfwear and Levi’s 501 jeans (a brand Salisbury created), is also the genius behind Michael Jackson’s iconic image in black pants, glittery socks, and loafers wearing a single white glove.
As the planet still celebrates Michael Jackson’s memory and legacy, and to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the release of Michael’s first Epic single – Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough – Salisbury reflects on how the singer’s look came about.
MJ data bank: Mike, you created the image of Michael Jackson for the cover of his first hugely successful solo album « Off the Wall. » How did it all happen?
Having just seen Michael Jackson in the movie « The Wiz »-I was more than blown away. I knew his agent and called him to say that Michael was going to be huge—the biggest– and I wanted to work on something with him. Anything. The agent told me to come to his office immediately. I ran to Beverly Hills. He showed me an album cover mock up. « This is to be his solo debut album. What do you think? » I said that it looked like a cheap ad for the children’s department of Macy’s. « I know » the agent agreed. « It sucks. » I said, « Michael Jackson is going to be a phenomenal star and must be introduced to the world with an exciting image that would be an iconic of him as a star and a star on his own. Let me come back with some ideas. »
MJ data bank: What was the creative process for you?
Marketing recording stars like George Harrison, James Taylor, Ike and Tina, Rickie Lee Jones and art directing Rolling Stone magazine -I had experience in the music business. And I had an idea to market Michael. But, It needed to be sold with a presentation. I did not want to get shot down because my concept could not be visualized if I simply just verbalized it. This was the major turning point in a young artist’s life and I wanted to create for him a new image, a brand. Most music marketing elements–covers, photography, artist logos—all the elements are usually created in verbal sessions with the artist. But I had one really good idea and had no idea who I would be presenting to and if not Michael , I needed something that he would get If it was delivered to him by anyone but me. My concept must tangible. It involved creating not just an album cover—it was a look for Michael.
MJ data bank: How did your concept become visually tangible?
Because I was not only designing, creating a cover I was also styling a person so I had my concept sketched in several variations by a fashion illustrator who was not only good at fashion but also could draw an accurate likeness of a person. This had to express the concept and look like our star.
MJ data bank: Did your presentation work?
I returned to the agent’s office and presented the concepts. He looked, looked again, perplexed like a cross eyed-chicken checking out a worm. I knew I had to sell and sell now. « It’s a metaphor, » I probably yelled, « It’s a metaphor!! ». « He’s a kid just out from under his dad, just stepping away from his big brothers. I want it to make a statement: this is his debut as a man and it’s as big as Sinatra coming on stage in Vegas. This is a new emblematic symbol created by combining two symbols not usually associated together—a visual metaphor. »
MJ data bank: What symbols did you combine to create you visual metaphor and just what is the metaphor?
At that time, young Michael was gangly and had an Afro. A kid. Pointing to the fashion type drawing I said, « I put a kid in a tuxedo –a tuxedo like Sinatra walking into the spotlight to the applause of a sold out Vegas performance. » Black and white. Simple. Dramatic. « That says: big deal! » The agent hemmed and hawed and was just about to dismiss the whole nutty idea when a little high-pitched voice softly squeaked, « I like it. » And Michael stepped out from behind the tall heavy drape covering the large office window. « Let’s do it. »
MJ data bank: Where did the white socks he continued to wear with black pants and shoes his entire career come from?
Michael bought my idea with glee but he wanted to make one change: « I want to wear white socks, » Michael whispered. « Then they have to be glamorous socks. » I said. They were custom made for Michael by famous Hollywood costume designer Bob Mackie. My wife at the time found an Yves St. Laurent woman’s tux in Beverly Hills that fit Michael and when we shot the cover I said, « Roll up your pant legs and put your fingers in your pockets and pull your pants up like Gene Kelly – to show off the socks. » To really carry of the Gene Kelley thing I had Michael get loafers like Kelley wore with his white socks under rolled up pant legs in the film « An American in Paris ».
MJ data bank: Well it worked.
Not at first. The first shoot for me simply did not work. It had no energy. No literal wall imagery. And, as they say in music— »No announcement value ». Michael was a good sport and we reshot it in an urban alley against a old real wall made of brick and « voilà! » « Off the Wall » perhaps after the Great Wall and the Berlin Wall—one of the most famous walls in the world. I also added the window and the sky in the window in Michael’s wall. There was just too much brick and it was dark. And the window added just a bit of Magritte surrealism. And that first cover had something really special about it. A fan wrote recently and remarked that he liked that particular shot because it captured Michael in his natural state, so yes, it worked.
MJ data bank: Let’s talk about the glove…it is, after all, the ultimate Michael symbol.
Basically it was just further development of « the look. » The white socks were so successful at drawing attention to Michael and his dance moves, a conversation started about doing gloves too. White gloves. I felt that would start looking literally Mickey Mouse (and of course Michael was a big Mickey Mouse fan) so between the agent and Michael and me, we got it down to one white glitzy glove. Another great move for attention. There’s all this talk recently about the glove being an attempt to hide his skin condition, but I was there when the look was created and it was all about making a distinct creative statement and getting attention. And it worked!
MJ data bank: MJ data bank : Of course, another iconic element of the look was the hat.
I know where the socks, shoes, tux and glove came from but the hat was after my involvement. I had thought that since I turned Michael onto Gene Kelly, perhaps he was the inspiration for the hat (or Sinatra). Then I recalled between cover shoots going to the townhouse Michael had at the time out in the valley. In the foyer was a replica of Donatello’s David; David wears a hat. Michael liked the look. I also recall the strong graphics of the statue’s body positioning and that influenced me to push Michael further to get to that iconic pose that is the original cover of « Off the Wall. » The whole look we created at that time was a graphic metaphor of Michael’s coming of age, of his stepping out as a man on his own. Those images, the black and white palette, the socks and glove and all the other trademark elements we came up with, were kept in some form as the symbol of Michael Jackson throughout his career. Progression is seen in the video for « Billie Jean »: the walls are now dimensional, the jacket more glitzy and the socks twinkle and sparkle.
MJ data bank: Where exactly was the cover shot taken?
The first attempt was at the Hollywood Planetarium, the Griffith Observatory. Michael drove up the hill, stopped at the spot in front of the building that was the location for the knife fight in « Rebel Without a Cause » and that’s where we shot. He was just 21 and came roaring up in a new Rolls Royce. Never really driving himself most of his life, he was a pretty crazy driver and it was smashed up a bit. There was no place to change and we were under the gun because we had no permit to shoot there. But the women’s restroom was open and like a real trouper he ran in there and put on the tux. I didn’t want him to be overpowered in the photo by the building and he agreed so we shot closer in to him. Later he was a good enough sport to realize those observatory shots wouldn’t work and he agreed to a re-shoot. I redid it with photographer Steve Harvey with Michael standing against that wall.
MJ data bank: MJ data bank : Any concluding thoughts on Michael’s story?
There’s a famous Artie Shaw quote: « Failure was easy to deal with. You always knew where to go: UP. You would keep on trying. But success was confusing. It was like a drug. Most people are conditioned and used to failure. Not many are conditioned and trained for what happens once you succeed. It’s very, very, confusing… » I think it all just became confusing for Michael. He had so much success and from a very young age. I don’t think too many people can understand what it was like to be him, to continually have to reinvent himself to stay on top. But my graphic black and white elements are always there. Just like Michael’s standards.
Salisbury created Michael Jackson’s « Off the Wall » debut album cover art Salisbury in 1979. Today, Salisbury is recognized worldwide as one of the leading talents in American brand design. His artwork is seen by people every day in some of the world’s most recognized corporate branding and product designs for companies such as Volkswagen, Suzuki, Honda, and Hasbro—the biggest toy company in the world.
His work can also be found everywhere in the motion picture industry. Salisbury helped create marketing campaigns for over 300 movies including Aliens, Jurassic Park, Romancing The Stone, Raiders of The Lost Ark and Moulin Rouge. The « exploding boxing gloves » that introduced Rocky IV to the world is an iconic Salisbury image that drew more recognition for the film than its title, ultimately becoming the visual symbol for the film and Salisbury’s most copied graphic metaphor. George Lucas is a collector of Salisbury’s work and recommended him to Francis Ford Coppola, who used Salisbury imagery creations in Apocalypse Now.
His music industry work includes creating album covers for George Harrison, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Ry Cooder, Ike & Tina (for which he garnered an album design Grammy nomination), and many others. Mike additionally developed branding identities for top labels Blue Note Records, RCA, United Artists Records and PolyGram.
For more information or to schedule an interview with Mike Salisbury, please visit www.mikesalisbury.net or call 310-526-6081.