TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Saturday, January 31, 1970.
SONGWRITERS: Berry Gordy Jr., Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards.
PRODUCERS: The Corporation.
BACKSTORY: Motown’s last superstar discovery of the 1960s was also its youngest. Thus wrote Bill Dahl and Keith Hughes about “I Want You Back” in liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9: 1969. “The Jackson 5, with its lightning-rod lead singer Michael, represented the future,” they added. “The appeal of seeing a child sing soul beyond his years was irresistible.”
Truer words were never written, as proved by the chart-topping impact of “I Want You Back” during the opening weeks of 1970 – and the next three Jackson 5 singles, “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There,” which all soared to the summit, too. “I Want You Back” was originally written with Gladys Knight in mind, after Motown producer Deke Richards told up-and-coming colleagues Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren that the fastest way to make a name for themselves was to compose a hit for a star who’s cold. When Berry Gordy heard the result, he made some suggestions to improve the song, while also earmarking it for the Jackson 5, then brand new to the Motown roster.
The brothers from Gary, Indiana, recorded “I Want You Back” at the MoWest studio in Los Angeles during 1969. “I knew this thing went up to a high E flat,” Perren recalled in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, “and thought, ‘Wow, this guy has really got to sing high to get this.’ ” Michael did, of course, and the single was released October 7 of that year. The writing, arranging and producing was credited to a new creative unit dubbed The Corporation, comprising Richards, Perren, Mizell and Gordy.
On October 14, Diana Ross introduced the Jackson 5 to a national TV audience on The Hollywood Palace, just as she had hosted the group’s media launch in Los Angeles two months earlier. The connection with the Supreme superstar continued: when “I Want You Back” topped the Billboard R&B charts at the beginning of 1970, the record it displaced was…“Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & the Supremes.
REMAKES: The steel-strong identification of “I Want You Back” with the Jackson 5 has not deterred others. At Motown, David Ruffin recorded the song in 1970, although the album for which it was intended did not appear until 2004. Martha Reeves & the Vandellas also cut it on their final Motown long-player, Black Magic. After that, the remakers ranged from Graham Parker & the Rumour to K.T. Tunstall, from Human Nature to Sheryl Crow. In 1998, a young female trio, Cleopatra, sent “I Want You Back” to the Top 5 of the British charts, while firmly in the 21st century, Taylor Swift included the song in an acoustic version during her “Speak Now” world tour of 2011. Everyone wants somebody back, it seems.
FOOTNOTE: The song on the flipside of our previous Track of the Week, Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You,” was also recorded by the Jackson 5 – and it was the flip of this latest Track of the Week, “I Want You Back.” That’s perhaps no surprise, considering “Who’s Lovin’ You” was (as noted above) featured in their original 1968 audition for Motown. The following year, they recorded the song at Hitsville U.S.A. in Detroit with producer Bobby Taylor, whose talent-spotting had brought the brothers to the record company in the first place.