“Life without the brothers was a reality check.”
So declared Jermaine in his intriguing 2011 book about life as a Jackson, You Are Not Alone: Michael, Through A Brother’s Eyes. Jermaine made his own decisions about career and family in 1976, staying at Motown when his siblings departed for CBS Records. Since he was married to Berry Gordy’s first daughter, Hazel, this was not entirely a surprise.
The “reality check” gave Jermaine plenty of choice when it came to recording his post-Jackson 5 work at Motown. Among those writing and producing partners were Hal Davis, Michael Lovesmith, Jeffrey Bowen, Suzee Ikeda, Stevie Wonder and, of course, Berry Gordy himself.
Let’s Get Serious is the highpoint of those years, and its title track – produced, arranged and co-written by Stevie – was as commercially successful and creatively satisfying as anything from post-Detroit Motown. In 1980, the single was a Top 10 crossover hit in the US and the UK, and No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles charts for six weeks.
Like so much of Stevie’s work, “Let’s Get Serious” stands time’s test. Thirty-five years have not dimmed the song’s pneumatic energy, nor Jermaine’s vocal joie de vivre. Co-writer Lee Garrett once explained that Stevie played the track (“nothing else”) to him. “I listened and listened, and all of a sudden it hit me, and I started jumping up and down, singing ‘let’s get serious.’ [Stevie] wrote most of the words and stuff.”
Jermaine was captivated. “That record? I still ask myself how did he come up with certain grooves and certain feels and stuff,” he said. “To record that…we did it over 15 times, and we recorded it here, there and everywhere. Again, he wanted it a certain way.” That certain way featured Stevie on keyboards (synthesizer, piano, Fender Rhodes) and drums, accompanied by his stalwart sidemen Ben Bridges on guitar – listen to his unyielding fretwork throughout eight minutes of the unedited album track – and Nathan Watts on bass, among others. Adding a mighty percussive drive on congas is Earl DeRouen, whose Motown credentials include playing on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album and co-authoring “Right On” with the singer. Stevie’s own, brief vocal appearance on “Let’s Get Serious” adds luster, without upstaging Jermaine.
Wonder’s work on two further Let’s Get Serious tracks is far more mellow: a midtempo ballad, “You’re Supposed To Keep Your Love For Me,” with a meandering melody that’s unmistakeably Stevie, plus some sly harmonica, and “Where Are You Now,” a understated finger-snapper which mixes drifting strings with light touches of brass, both synthesizer-sourced. Jermaine wisely chooses feather-light vocals for both, as he does on “We Can Put It Back Together,” co-written with spouse Hazel and reminiscent of the best Jackson 5 ballads.
Stevie’s three tracks aside, Jermaine is the producer of Let’s Get Serious, powering the album with his own virtuosity on bass and keyboards, and writing rhythm, horn and string arrangements with Don Peake, who played guitar on Jackson 5 hits. Another blue-chip musician from J5 sessions, Joe Sample of the Crusaders, is on keyboards, while a couple more Stevie associates join the party: Ollie Brown on drums and Greg Phillinganes on keyboards. Hazel Jackson and Suzee Ikeda are among the background vocalists.
This skill and experience really shines through on “Burnin’ Hot,” “You Got To Hurry Girl” and “Feelin’ Free,” and sets the album in its historical context, too. The first of the three puts Jermaine in Studio 54, with a disco-driven falsetto vocal that’s as surprising as it is compelling (“Burnin’ fever/You give me fever”). There’s a slight debt to Sylvester, but everything stands – and dances – firmly on its own two feet. Meanwhile, “Feelin’ Free” deceives the listener with a melancholy intro which bursts into a neo-Latin rumba, only to be stripped back to a sparse vocal-and-rhythm framework which is pure Prince, who was ruling the charts only a few months earlier with “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Finally, judging by “You Got To Hurry Girl,” Jermaine was also listening to other high priests of the late 1970s while making this album: Chic. If you’re going to stand on anyone’s shoulders, why not the electrifying rhythm guitar riffs and finger-popping bass lines of Nile ’n’ ’Nard, not to mention Chic’s stabbing strings? “You Got To Hurry Girl” carries it off with confidence.
“I’ll never forget the time when my brothers and I first came [to Motown],” said Jermaine. “I felt it was an important time in our life, because somebody cared about what we were doing, gave us an opportunity to sing for the world, and I feel that’s very special.”
Special, and serious.
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