The Jackson 5 – The Motown Years
The Jackson 5 were more than a huge hit recording act. They were an international multi-media phenomenon who ushered Motown into its second decade with a stunningly fresh sound that has often been imitated but never duplicated.
Look beyond their unequaled chart success – their first four major label singles all reached No. 1 on the pop charts, they had a run of three years in which every single they released made the pop Top 20 and every single they released during their tenure on Motown reached the top 10 of the soul charts – and you find hour-long TV specials, an animated TV series, a extensive line of merchandise with the ubiquitous “J-5” logo in which both characters tailed into hearts, the popularization of the “robot” dance routine and regular cover stories in teen magazines. They rapidly became the pop sensation that Motown specialized in creating – and then reached new heights.
Most importantly, people loved them. “Words fail miserable when it comes to describing how instantly the flashy family captured hearts of all ages,” wrote music journalist A. Scott Galloway. “Grandparents wanted to adopt ’em and kids wanted to be them.” But the foundation for it all was great music, for which Motown is unmatched, and a stagecraft, which made them the rightful heirs of Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Wilson and James Brown.
Jackie (born May 4, 1951), Tito (October, 15 1953), Jermaine (December 11, 1954), Marlon (March 12, 1957) and Michael (August 29, 1958) hailed from Gary, Indiana, where their father Joe, a crane operator at a steel mill, had played blues guitar at local clubs; he began marshalling his sons into a family music group as far back as 1962. They played talent shows and amateur contests and continued to polish their act when about five years later, Gladys Knight first encountered them and recommended Motown take notice.
It would be Motown singer/producer Bobby Taylor who brought the quintet to Detroit not long after, began recording them, and alerted Berry Gordy’s assistant Suzanne de Passe of their immense abilities. She in turn told Gordy, whose initial response was, “I hate kid groups.” But once he saw these kids go through their routine on film, he whisked them to Los Angeles in the summer of ’68. Gordy set up old-style Motown Artist Development classes to refine their act and helped create a writing team – Deke Richards, Alphonzo Mizell, Freddie Perren and himself – dubbed “The Corporation,” to craft a smash debut record.
That song was “I Want You Back.” Motown historian Don Waller called it “probably the best pop record ever made.” Michael, the obvious centerpiece, conveyed an electric maturity well beyond his years. The B-side covered the Miracles’ “Who’s Loving You” from a decade earlier. It paired the type of vocal harmony that vocal groups would try to emulate decades later with Michael’s incredibly convincing plea, belying his pre-teen status; years later both Gordy and Smokey Robinson, its songwriter, would continue to marvel how Michael kicked Smokey’s original in the rear.
The group’s first LP, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, linked the boys with Motown’s biggest star and hit the top 5 of the pop album charts. In short order, the J-5 began cranking out more Number 1 singles – “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and the mighty ballad “I’ll Be There,” which topped the chart for six weeks and became Motown’s biggest selling single to date. Their next two LPs each climbed to Number 4. In less than a year, the Jackson 5 had stormed the world.
Their image soon took hold across the media: Five fun-loving kids with prominent afro hair styles wearing brightly colored patterned shirts and bell-bottomed pants who moved on stage in perfect synchronicity – Michael singing and dancing with furious control, shadowed by Marlon and Jackie while Tito on lead guitar and Jermaine on bass moved with them. Their drummer Johnny Jackson (no relation) and keyboard player Ronnie Rancifer, both also from Gary, rounded out their stage act.
On record, their direct and instantly recognizable energetic sound was built around funky rhythm tracks with Michael’s high pitched vocals offset perfectly by Jermaine’s huskier second lead and soulful harmonies. Two more huge hits followed in “Mama’s Pearl” and the sophisticated “Never Can Say Goodbye.” And even though “Maybe Tomorrow” didn’t crack the upper reaches of the pop chart, Motown launched solo careers for both Michael and Jermaine and they each had scored big hits by 1972.
There was a Christmas LP and a soundtrack album from their TV special. As the boys (and their fans) started to mature, so did their material. On 1972’s Lookin’ Through the Windows album, their seventh in less than four years, the title song and “Little Bitty Pretty One” were big hits and each showed the group wasn’t dependent on any formula to find an audience. That album featured more of Jermaine’s vocals than previously, but Michael was still ever-present and riveting as always.
The transition continued as the group moved increasingly toward dance music on the Get It Together LP, when producer Hal Davis matched the Jackson 5 with some of Norman Whitfield’s earlier material for the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Undisputed Truth. The result was a danceable groove that proved very popular in 1973, the title track especially becoming a favorite for Soul Train dancers on TV.
Sisters Janet and LaToya joined the stage act around this time and younger brother Randy became a permanent member of the group on percussion.
A year later, the metamorphosis was complete. The Jackson 5 had been guests on Stevie Wonder’s hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” a musical indictment of political hypocrisy and soon returned to the top of the charts on their own. “Dancing Machine,” plucked from the Get It Together LP, and remixed for single release and its own LP in ’74, went to No. 1. It inspired the robotic dance craze that really has never entirely died. The LP also had the cutting edge song “I Am Love,” as adventurous as anything Stevie was recording.
When their Motown contract expired, the group elected to sign to Epic Records, although Jermaine, who had married Berry’s daughter Hazel, stayed with Motown as a solo artist. But before the group moved on, they released one final LP, Moving Violation, in 1975 which contained the type of music that would usher in the disco era. Their version of “Forever Came Today,” an extended version of the Supremes hit packed dance floors when it was released in 1976 and became a No. 1 disco hit. Following the success of the Jacksons at their new label, Motown also issued two albums of vaulted tracks, Joyful Jukebox Music and Boogie. The J5 were inducted the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
The Jackson 5 had grown up before our eyes and their musical legacy remains a remarkable testament, not just to Michael’s greatness, but to their collective talent.