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New Spin on Collapse of Jackson's Charity Project

July 13, 2002|CHUCK PHILIPS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From nowhere he emerged, an unknown in the music industry--with one big exception. He was a friend of Michael Jackson.

In the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, F. Marc Schaffel was traveling in new circles, assembling a choir of superstars to sing with Jackson on a fund-raising single that would be sold through McDonald's Corp. Jackson had made Schaffel executive producer.

The singer's handlers were as bewildered as everyone else--so much so that they set out to learn more about Schaffel. What they discovered would trigger a major damage-control effort and bring a halt to a project that some of the country's top performers had hoped would help the grieving families.

Schaffel, it turned out, was in the gay pornography business--and Jackson's people did not want him linked to the self-described King of Pop, whose legacy already was tarnished by allegations of sexual molestation in 1993.

Given the high stakes for Jackson--and the high visibility of the charity project--his aides quietly asked Sony Music Entertainment Inc. to bury the single, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews with those familiar with the deal. The record suffered yet another setback when McDonald's backed out of a multimillion-dollar proposal to sell it at its franchises, fearing fallout from customers who would be unhappy with the chain's association with Jackson, sources said.

None of this, however, was mentioned last weekend by Jackson when he blamed Sony Music for blocking the release of the charity single, which is called "What More Can I Give" and features two dozen artists, including Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan and Reba McEntire. Jackson accused Sony Music's chairman, Thomas D. Mottola, of being a racist who not only had failed to release the charity record but also had ruined sales of Jackson's last album, "Invincible," because of poor marketing.

Now, his highly publicized remarks, delivered at a press conference in Harlem with activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, have backfired.

Had the singer not launched his offensive against Sony, the details behind the collapse of the charity project might still be under wraps. Instead, the music industry was abuzz Friday with the latest bizarre twist in the singer's career.

Some say that career is in decline. Nevertheless, Jackson remains a powerful force in music. "Invincible," released late last summer, topped the charts with 366,000 copies sold in its first week. Still, sales quickly dropped and the album was seen largely as a disappointment given Sony's $26-million marketing campaign. Its sales, for example, were far behind the 1.9 million sold by 'N Sync's "Celebrity" in its first week.

Regardless, Jackson outsells many new acts and remains one of the industry's biggest global stars. And few in Hollywood have Jackson's clout or ability to assemble a star-studded cast such as the one willing to contribute to the charity event.

Now that the project has fallen apart, Jackson's representatives are declining to comment except to say that when they and the singer learned of Schaffel's background, they immediately broke ties with him. Sony also declined to comment. A McDonald's representative said an agreement was never signed to sell the charity single.

Among the key players, only Schaffel is talking. And he says he feels wronged.

"I believe this charity single could still generate lots of money to help those in need," said Schaffel, who has produced and directed dozens of gay pornographic videos. "Why shouldn't it come out? Because of something I did in the past? I mean, this is an industry in which rock stars date porno queens. Adult film doesn't have the same stigma it used to. So really, what's their excuse?"

According to Schaffel, he and Jackson became friends several years ago. The two are believed to have been introduced by a Beverly Hills dermatologist.

Schaffel said that even before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, he and Jackson began discussing the possibility of producing a charity record to try to duplicate the success of the Jackson-penned hit recording "We Are the World" in the mid-1980s. This time, Jackson wrote the music and lyrics and signed away the rights to Schaffel sometime before the terrorist strikes.

"I am the executive producer of the project, which was financed primarily by Michael," Schaffel said.

That decision by Jackson left many in the industry puzzled about why an entertainer known for shrewd deal making would simply give away the song's rights to Schaffel. The singer never consulted or notified his lawyer and manager that he had sealed the deal in a written contract, sources familiar with the deal said.

After the terrorist attacks, Schaffel said, he and Jackson decided to transform the song into a 9/11 tribute. The singer informed his inner circle about the project and introduced them to Schaffel, whose attorneys suggested they try to land a corporate sponsorship from McDonald's to help advertise and sell the song.

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