The Jackson 5 - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
I’m a big Chris Rock fan, and I do think his bit on Michael Jackson is brilliant. Rock becomes apoplectic, shrill, in his sheer disbelief and disgust as he finally gives up on Michael Jackson. “Another Kid? Another Kid?? Y’all that’s how much we all loved Michael Jackson – we let the first kid sliiiide.” He vows, “That’s it. I’m done with Michael Jackson. I’m turnin’ in my glove.” Of course, implicit in all of this is a profound disappointment. It would be easy to coast through any piece about Michael Jackson on jokes and cheap shots. Michael Jackson has physically and spiritually mutilated himself beyond recognition. He has, allegedly, poured wine in soda cans and offered it to young boys, with the reassurance that it was acceptable to drink because it was “Jesus juice.” In a decades-long bout of public self-loathing, he has carved and sanded his face: first until he looked like Diana Ross; then until he looked like a white woman; then until he looked like an extraterrestrial; and then what was left of his nose fell off. He lives somewhere in Arabia, under the protection of some sheik, where, presumably, law is something vague, and license is something you purchase. However repugnant and grotesque we all thought fame and self-indulgence could be, Michael Jackson exceeded all of our expectations.
How did it come to this? Because to look back at Thriller-era Michael Jackson, when his fame exploded in planetary shockwave bombast, you have to bear in mind that Michael Jackson had already been hugely famous. Part of the reason the world embraced that one-gloved, adult Michael Jackson with such warmth and enthusiasm in the early 80s was that it had already embraced him with warmth and enthusiasm in the early 1970s. Planet Earth was rooting for Michael Jackson to succeed and enrapture us – again. The Jackson 5 were massive. It’s almost painful to look back at the videos for hits like “ABC” and see the childhood version of Michael Jackson: (seemingly) joyous; (seemingly) normal; supremely talented. He was breathtakingly talented; full of energy and enthusiasm and charm and charisma with the soul of a Solomon Burke and the moves of a Wilson Pickett packed into the body of an 11-year-old boy. The world loved Michael Jackson for a reason. He exuded joy. I’m with Chris Rock; I turned in my glove a long time ago. But the Jackson 5 were a joy.
It started in Gary, Indiana, where father Joe worked in a steel mill. The original members were Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael Jackson. Originally, Jackie, Tito and Jermaine formed The Jackson Brothers, in 1964, and when Marlon and Michael were old enough, in 1966, they joined. Johnny Jackson (no relation) played drums while Ronnie Rancifer was on keyboards. Tito played lead guitar; Jermaine played bass guitar. They played anywhere they could around Gary and Chicago, including strip clubs. The first Jackson 5 single, "Big Boy” (Steeltown, 1968), was released on a local label and became a regional hit.
The Jackson 5 were good, really good, and word spread. Legendary soul men Sam & Dave caught the act, and loved it. They got the group into the Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, on August 13, 1967. They won. That was a big deal, and the ball started rolling. Gladys Knight was in the crowd, and she recorded for Motown. She tried to get Berry Gordy to sign the Jacksons, but he already had a child act – Little Stevie Wonder. Undaunted, the Jackson 5 continued to hone their sound, and engaging miz of funk, soul, Motown and R&B.
In July of 1968, they finally got their audition at Motown. Child act or no child act, Berry Gordy was sold. He signed the Jackson 5, and they were soon in the studio, Motown’s own Hitsville USA, recording covers of Sly & the Family Stone’s "Stand!" and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Who's Lovin' You.” Gordy intended to make them his next big act, and he moved the band and Joseph to Los Angeles, where they lived with both Gordy and Diana Ross.
Gordy and the Motown marketing staff started cooking up all sorts of nonsense to promote the band: Michael’s age was shifted from twelve to eight; Rancifer and Johnny Jackson were welcomed into the family as “cousins”; most significantly, they decided to declare that it was Diana Ross that discovered the boys, and to put her name prominently on the first Jackson 5 LP. She publicly rolled out the group in the summer of ’68.
“I Want You Back” was the first single and, like nearly all of the early singles, it was written by The Corporation, a team of Motown songwriters and producers that included Berry Gordy, Alphonzo Mizell, Deke Richards, and Freddie Perren — who were collectively billed as "The Corporation". "I Want You Back" came out in October of 1969; the LP, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969), was released in December 1969. “I Want You Back” zoomed to #1.
The Jackson 5 were an immediate smash. In 1970 they had three #1 singles: "ABC,” "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There.” Each topped the Billboard charts. "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Mama’s Pearl cracked the Top 5.
It all happened with breathtaking speed. The Jackson 5 became superstars, purveying an irresistibly catchy brand of Bubblegum Soul. They became the biggest act on Motown – bigger than the supremes. Always savvy, the folks at Motown seized the opportunity to license Jackson 5 –related merchandise. It was a kaleidoscopic whorl of commerce. There were posters, stickers, lunch pails, comic books, patches, coloring books; there was a Saturday morning cartoon, The Jackson 5ive, that aired from early 1972 through 1974. There were prime-time television specials: Goin' Back to Indiana aired September 16, 1971; The Jackson 5 Show aired November 5, 1972. The Jackson 5 transcended age and race in America at a time when it was still reeling from the 60s and race riots and the Kennedys, and at the heart of it all was Michael Jackson – spinning, strutting, belting it out with a ton of heart and just as much soul.
Michael, Jermaine, and Jackie all got solo careers in 1971-72, as Motown tried to cash in on the critical mass as much as possible before the magic passed. Of course, Michael’s was the most successful. His singles “Got to Be There,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are” all hit the Top 5. Jermaine had a Top 10 his with “Daddy’s Home”; Jackie’s single missed the charts. And sure enough, the magic started to pass. There were subsequent singles like "Lookin' Through the Windows" (1972) and "Dancing Machine" and the LPs Lookin' Through the Windows (Motown, 1972) and G.I.T.: Get It Together (Motown, 1973); these cracked the Top 20, but they weren’t gargantuan hits. That’s how it goes when you predicate much of your marketing on the youth market. Kids will buy something because their friends bought it, so there will be mania; but not staying power.
Berry Gordy was notoriously authoritative and rigid. He had struck gold with a single formula, and the guy wasn’t going to budge. The Jackson 5 weren’t allowed to play their own instruments on their records; they weren’t allowed to write their own material; and they certainly weren’t allowed to produce their own material. Berry Gordy wanted them young forever, his own Peter Pans, flying through billowing clouds of cash. As sales plummeted, and critical reviews soured, Joe Jackson saw the situation differently, and decided to get the boys away from Motown. He eventually succeeded in securing them a deal with CBS, the smartest signing that label ever made, as it eventually guaranteed that they got to release Thriller. However, it cost the Jackson 5 their name. They’d be The Jacksons for the duration, and they do some fine work, but real magic was gone, and I’ll also conclude here because The Jacksons lead to “Billy Jean,” which leads to “HIStory,” which leads to jumping on the roof of the car, late for court in the Captain Crunch outfit, and that leads to the United Arab Emirates, or wherever it is, and I’d rather just do a happy little bop to “ABC” on YouTube. It’s charmingly irresistible.