Remaking Michael

Why waste money (or steal) those bogus Thriller remixes when you can get better Michael Jackson reinventions legally — for free? Plus, the history of the classic Harlem Globetrotters song "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Two months ago, the silver-anniversary reissue of Michael Jackson's Thriller — a souped-up, repackaged remembrance of the nine tracks of pop/soul perfection that the tree-climbing, surgical mask-wearing, yeah-it's-OK-to-sleep-with-kids, nutty sumbitch unleashed on the world so many years ago — hit stores.

Sadly, there's one thing keeping the re-release from being just as perfect now as it was then: will.i.am!

The Black Eyed Peas captain remixes three of the album's classic tunes (with Jackson wholly signing off), and by doing so, reminds everyone why Diddy is no longer the leader of the meddlesome, obsequious producer/performer pack.

His reworking of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" comes off best — if only because will has Jackson sing new lyrics that the Moonwalker pulls off with melodious ease. Even after all these crazy years, the boy can still come with the sweet vocals. But then he and Jackson completely excise Paul McCartney from "The Girl Is Mine," making one wonder if this is Jackson's spiteful payback for all those years Macca made Jacko look like the bad guy for buying the rights to the Beatles' song catalog. At any rate, what shows up here is Jackson singing all the lyrics while will awkwardly wedges in some manly boasts.

By far the most egregious offense is the redo of "Beat It," which sets Jackson in a duet with a snarling Fergie. If it wasn't for that train wreck of a rendition Charlotte Church did with a sloshed Amy Winehouse on British TV a couple of years ago, we'd all hang our heads in shame over this version.

For what it's worth, will.i.am isn't the only one who doesn't do the Gloved One any favors with his tricked-out tunes. Jackson is little more than a back-up singer on Akon's remake of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." At least Kanye West had the decency to just add more strings and drums to his "Billie Jean" remix and let Jackson sing his own damn song.

It seems that underground rappers have a better sense of what to do with Michael Jackson tracks. A year ago, Mobb Deep's Havoc poignantly riffed on loyalty with his song "Be There," which sampled Jackson's "Got to Be There" with impressive results.

The ARE also mined early Jackson material with style. On the Dem Damb Jacksons collection, available for free download on Frank W. Miller Jr.'s Web site Rappers I Know (www.rappersiknow.com), the former K-Otix beatman crunches up a number of Jackson 5 favorites, while MCs Kay and Oh No take turns throwing down some crafty, hard-edged rhymes.

Still, Chicago MC Rhymefest reigns as the king of re-imagining the King of Pop. His witty-gritty Man in the Mirror mixtape — also available as a free download under "Mixtapes" at www.rhymefeststore.com — finds him teaming up with such producers as the omnipresent Mark Ronson (Winehouse, Lily Allen) and Best Kept Secret. This trio raids samples from every point in Jackson's career — Jackson 5, solo, and a few rarities in between. Remember "You Can't Win," Michael's showstopper from The Wiz?

Rhymefest gives props to Jackson's legacy — without tarnishing or disrespecting what's left of it, mind you —while also reminding us why we all should still have a place in our hearts for the fedora-wearing freak.— Craig D. Lindsey

The Sweet Spot

Soon after the Harlem Globetrotters take the court, they come together in the "Magic Circle," a fast-paced demonstration of trick passing and basketball sleight-of-hand that's become a trademark ritual for the venerable barnstorming team. The "Magic Circle" is accompanied, as it has been at every game the Globetrotters have played for the last 60 years, by the clickety-clack, two-beat rhythm and jaunty, whistling melody of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

With music by Maceo Pinkard and words by Kenneth Casey, "Sweet Georgia Brown" was first recorded in 1925 by bandleader Ben Bernie, who received a writing credit for helping popularize the tune. As sung by Ethel Waters later that same year, the lyrics made it clear that Georgia was one formidable femme fatale:

"No gal made has got a shade on Sweet Georgia Brown

Two left feet, but oh so neat, has Sweet Georgia Brown

They all sigh and wanna die for Sweet Georgia Brown

I'll tell you why, you know I don't lie...much"

After accruing additional verses, "Sweet Georgia Brown" became a standard of mid-century popular music, inspiring cover versions by artists ranging from Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles (while backing singer Tony Sheridan) and the Grateful Dead. The song's slightly unusual A-B-A-C form and harmonic detours also made it a favorite of jazz improvisers. Miles Davis kept the chord changes, wrote a new melody and called it "Dig"; Thelonious Monk performed a similar makeover, calling his version "Bright Mississippi."

Though there are hundreds of recordings of "Sweet Georgia Brown," none is as recognizable as the one used by the Globetrotters, which was done by Freeman Davis under the name "Brother Bones" and first released in 1949 by Tempo Records. Born in 1902 in Montgomery, Alabama, Davis was a whistler, tap dancer and bones player who, the story goes, first demonstrated his talent for rhythm as a rag-popping, brush-wielding shoeshine boy. As an adult, he became a professional entertainer who played the bones — a sort of clapper that's found in musical cultures from Africa to Ireland — in a distinctive style that used four bones in each hand instead of two.

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