After the Indiana brothers’ first two, extraordinary years in the spotlight, this platinum package was a momentary pause, a chance to reflect, before they resumed their place on music’s merry-go-round.
Motown released the Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits in December 1971, with pride. It offers no fewer than seven Top 10 tunes, including four which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” These made history; it was the first time that any act had hit the summit with their first four charted 45s. What’s more, all but two of the album’s eleven tracks were produced and arranged by The Corporation, comprising four ace Motown songwriters and producers: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards and – the boss – Berry Gordy.
The hits need no further introduction, although the backstories may be less well-known. With “I Want You Back,” Freddie Perren knew that the song went up to a high E flat. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy has really got to sing high to get this.’ I was worried about that more than anything else. Michael wasn’t as outgoing or playful as the other guys. He would just stand there, we were singing the song, and all the time I was showing it to him, I was thinking, ‘Can he reach these notes?’ Finally, we took a try at it, and he just hit it the first time.”
The Corporation did much writing and rewriting. “Where a song may have had two verses,” said Perren, “we may have written eight or ten. We would go to Berry Gordy and he would tell us what to do. Most people think he’s just an executive, but he’s a great writer.”
The co-author of “I’ll Be There,” the Jackson 5’s fourth No. 1 and their first chart-topping ballad, was Willie Hutch, a singer and writer who had been associated with Motown in California for some years. “Mr. Gordy liked the title and the track,” said Hutch, “but he didn’t like the song.” Hutch was asked by producer Hal Davis to rework it with him. The pair did so one night at Hutch’s house, around 4 a.m. “Willie’s wife was mad at me,” said Davis, “but I work late.” By 8 a.m., the two were at Gordy’s house with the rewrite. “Berry listened for about 15 minutes,” according to Hutch, “and said, ‘OK, that’s a smash. Set up studio time for 1 o’clock’.”
Another prime J5 ballad on this album, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” was also produced by Hal Davis, who said the group wasn’t yet comfortable with ballads when he cut it. Nor, apparently, was the Motown A&R executive who felt the song was too adult for single release. Davis’ response was to play it at ear-splitting volume next to Berry Gordy’s office. The boss couldn’t help but hear. “He came out of his office and said, ‘Stop, that’s a smash’.” The single was soon put on the schedule, although when released, it stopped one rung short of No. 1.
“Mama’s Pearl,” as jet-propelled as the first three J5 chart-toppers, was another No. 1 lockout – in that case, by a Jacksons soundalike: the Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple”– while “Sugar Daddy,” their eighth Motown single, hit the Top 10. The latter made its album debut in Greatest Hits; it was not included on any of the group’s previous LPs.
There are Philadelphia flavours in “Never Can Say Goodbye” and this album’s closing track, “I Found That Girl,” inasmuch as the Jacksons’ vocals recall the work of the Delfonics, a symphonic soul trio brought to recognition by producer/writer Thom Bell. “I Found A Girl” also features the compelling lead of a 15-year-old Jermaine Jackson, while “Who’s Lovin’ You” is memorable for Michael Jackson’s stunning, note-holding finale. Both of these songs were originally flipsides of J5 singles, but charted in their own right.
The homecoming tale of “Goin’ Back To Indiana,” meanwhile, is the title tune from the Jackson 5’s first network TV special, broadcast towards the end of 1971. Guests on the show included Bill Cosby and basketball superstar Rosey Grier, and the J5 performed several of their hits and a couple of Sly & the Family Stone songs. Naturally, Motown released the soundtrack album.
Greatest Hits spent 41 weeks on the Billboard album charts in 1972, as the Jackson 5 spent another action-packed year of hard work in the studio and on the road, at home and abroad. This included their third national US tour (with a January fundraising concert in Atlanta for the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change) through the summer. Then, the brothers embarked on their first European swing, with an October appearance at the Royal Variety Performance show in London.
While staying in the British capital, the Jacksons were besieged in the Churchill Hotel by hundreds of fans. What to do? Why, stage an impromptu concert on the roof, of course, playing some of their greatest hits.
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