In September 2009, the extraordinary research of Reader contributor Jake Austen led to the discovery of Michael Jackson's first studio recording, which had been lingering on a shelf for four decades. Over a year later, the Jackson Five's rendition of "Big Boy" for One-derful Records has been rescued from tape, and you can hear a clip here.
Since I love listening to people discuss their craft, the reaction of Larry Blasingaine, then a child-prodigy guitarist and session man (or session mannish boy, I suppose) was of particular interest to me:
"Remember I always said the quality [of the Steeltown record] was weak compared to how One-derful sounded?" Blasingaine reminded me. "What I notice about this session—I can't tell until I hear it on bigger speakers, but this seems more professional. The balance, the engineering, it sounds like it was produced . . . they took time to work with them, especially the voices . . . the backgrounds are stronger, Michael is clearer; it jells. It's what made them the Jackson Five—people were amazed by hearing them so young and being able to do that. And that's why I didn't understand when they said they had to go get some other musicians to play and sing."
The Steeltown recording of "Big Boy" was the Jackson Five's first actual single. And the differences are notable. Here's the Steeltown version for comparison:
(The One-derful clip starts at the beginning of Jackson's vocals, equivalent to about :30 into the Steeltown version.)
It's sharper and cleaner—Blasingaine in particular notes the skill of the session bassist—but it doesn't have the rich, wall-of-sound impact of the One-derful version. There's no organ on the Steeltown recording, and the session singers are held back in the mix, without the rich depth of the Jacksons' harmonies. The famous Steeltown version might be a better showcase for Michael, but—to my ears—it's not as fun.
As Jake Austen points out, it's impossible to say which one is better, but listening to the two, and reading Blasingaine's and Austen's takes, is an interesting comparison in musical choices.
(Update: The drums are also busier, and more prominent in the mix, on the One-derful recording, which is another reason why it sounds bigger and hits harder than the Steeltown recording. It sort of comes down to how you take your coffee.)
(Update II: Excellent point in comments about how the recordings impact the emotional differences between the two versions. This is why music is awesome.)