The year was 1970, I think.

My best friends, Sherry and Denise, and I excitedly flipped through Soul, the monthly newsletter put out by the R&B station in the San Francisco Bay area.

In our young, impressionable eyes, Soul was the equivalent of People magazine.

Under the headline "Groups To Watch," there was a picture of five good-looking boys, the youngest doe-eyed and caramel-colored with cutest pug nose you'd ever want to see.

The one named Michael, who stole the show every time.

They called themselves the Jackson 5.

They were black, like us. Rocked fringed vests and big Afros, like us.

And they were kids, just like us.

As the Jackson 5 started to blow up, chalking up No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit, we took them with us everywhere we went, played them endlessly in our bedrooms, and blasted them at family barbecues.

Because if a Jackson 5 song was on, you knew joy was being spread someplace.

"ABC." "I Want You Back." "Never Can Say Goodbye"

The boy band for a Soul Train generation.

It's hard to describe the love I had for the Jackson 5 back then. Suffice it to say I loved them so much I lied just so I could say I'd been close to them.

And as someone who has gone on to cover everyone from Julius Erving to Denzel Washington without fawning, I'd say that's big love.

Once, the Jackson 5 were scheduled to appeared at White Front, a warehouselike discount store in Oakland (think Wal-Mart).

We misread the time. By the time Sherry, Denise, and I showed up, they were gone.

We were crushed.

But we so wanted to know them, to prove we had met them, that Denise forged Michael and Jermaine's autograph in my little perforated autograph book. As if she knew what their signatures looked like.

Not that it mattered. Denise was one of the few who knew of my unrequited love for the Jackson 5, especially Jermaine.

But we all knew that the smallest one was the biggest star - the one whose sweet, soulful voice soared above them all and whose talent was unmatched.

Sure, he had the voice, but he was blessed with the showmanship of a James Brown, the kind of dance talent and stage presence that was often imitated - think Usher, Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake - but was seldom duplicated.

Everything he touched turned to gold. Only Michael could sing a song about a rat and make it sound like a romantic sonnet.

And it was Michael, introducing us to the moonwalk in that electrifying "Billie Jean" performance on the Motown 25 anniversary special in 1983, who morphed from solid solo artist to superduper star right before our eyes.

We'd all be well within our rights to claim a piece of Michael Jackson for ourselves.

After all, Michael's musical mastery - as well as his cultural infamy - pervaded some aspect of our lives for the better part of 40 years.

For 30-somethings, the first memory of Michael was surely the one who appeared on Motown 25. By then he had emerged as the trendsetting King of Pop. The Gloved One. The global phenomenon that was Thriller - the album and the transcendent video.

Our children, sadly, will point to Wacko Jacko, the washed-out singer who looked more like the Joker than a Jackson, whose bizarre behavior and clown-faced looks overshadowed his musical genius.

But we children of the '70s who were with him from the beginning know what the real deal is.

Despite all the surgeries, all the disturbing allegations of his relationships with children, all the self-destruction, his importance as an artist whom you always knew had more genius in him cannot be diminished.

It is what happens when you grow up with someone.

That is why the thought of Michael Jackson not being around to grow old with us hurts so bad.

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Read her work: http:/