IN the small town of Gary, Indiana, Joe and Katherine Jackson are raising their nine children in a two-bedroom home. The three oldest brothers decide to form a band and are eventually joined by two of their younger brothers. This is the story of how Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 got their start.
JACKIE: Tito, Jermaine, and I started the group. We were just fooling around on guitar and bass and then one day Michael joined us, playing bongos on a Quaker oatmeal box. He played them so well we thought he should be part of the group. As soon as we did that, he started dancing up in front, doing his James Brown thing. Michael always watched James Brown on television, and Jackie Wilson, too. Also the Temptations and the Four Tops. He would copy what they were doing. That’s when we realised how much showmanship he had, and we thought maybe he should be upfront, singing lead. Michael was a little kid at the time but he was very professional.
TITO: Michael and Marlon had both been asking to be in the group. We kept telling them they were too young, that this was just for their big brothers. When Michael was in first grade, he proved himself singing Climb Ev’ry Mountain from The Sound of Music at Garnett Elementary School. We told Michael, “You’re in the band now.” Then Marlon said, “Me, too?” We told him, “You too, Marlon.” In his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael described how he was overwhelmed at the ovation he received from the audience in the school auditorium. “The applause was thunderous and people were smiling; some of them were standing. My teachers were crying and I just couldn’t believe it. I had made them all happy. It was such a great feeling. I was a little confused, too, because I didn’t think I had done anything special. I was just singing the way I sang at home every night.” With the brothers now officially a quintet, word of their musical prowess spread through the neighbourhood.
JACKIE: Whenever we played music at home, kids who lived nearby would gather outside and peek in the windows to watch us. We really enjoyed that, playing Motown songs and hits by Sam Cooke and Sam & Dave and all those musicians from Stax. It was the best music. We were crazy about the Motown beat and would sing every Motown song we heard on the radio. We’d emulate the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes. We would say that we’d love to be on Motown even though we weren’t ready yet. We were just little kids singing in the bedroom, using broomsticks for microphones. The brothers’ reputation grew, and one day Katherine received a phone call from her friend Evelyn Leahy. She was organising a children’s fashion show at a department store in Forest Glen Park, about an hour away in Illinois. She wondered if the boys would sing three songs as part of the show. Katherine asked her sons and they all said yes. Evelyn needed to know the name of the group so that she could print flyers. Since the boys didn’t really have a name yet, Katherine suggested the Jackson Brothers Five. Evelyn said she would shorten it — to the Jackson Five.
TITO: Our very first talent show was at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary. That was a challenging show. One of the groups we were competing against was called the Ethics. They were very good. They sounded just like the Temptations and could have made it big. I don’t know why they didn’t. We were challenged by them many times and we won at least 90 per cent of the time. At that first Roosevelt High School talent show, Jermaine sang the Temptations’ hit My Girl. Katherine put the costumes together, just as she had for the department store show and would for many years to come. Winning the talent show sent the Jackson Five into a citywide competition, where they also triumphed. Up until this time, Joe was too busy working two shifts to give his sons much attention, let alone coach them musically. But after the talent show victories, he started them on a regular schedule of rehearsals and bought them guitars, amplifiers, and microphones. The first paying gig for the Jackson Five was at a local club, Mister Lucky’s Lounge.
JACKIE: It wasn’t a very big club but it was famous in Gary. We did a really good job performing, and the people in the audience started throwing money on stage. Tito, Jermaine, and I were at the back, but Michael and Marlon were standing in the front doing some dancing, so they picked up all the money. The three of us at the back were feeling jealous because we wanted to pick up some money, too. We were so intent on watching Michael and Marlon grab all the money that we started to forget the lyrics. The next day, Michael and Marlon took their money and bought a lot of candy. Convinced that his kids could be successful, Joe bought a VW van so he could take the brothers and their musical instruments and equipment to Chicago to play gigs.
JACKIE: Chicago was about thirty miles from Gary. Coming from a small town, we’d go to the big city and look up at all the buildings. We were really impressed with Comiskey Park, where the Chicago White Sox played. We played in a lot of clubs in Chicago. We were too young to hang out in these clubs, so we would have to wait in a room backstage for forty minutes or so. Then we’d perform and the crowd would go crazy. After the gigs, we’d go to White Castle hamburgers on the way home. We loved those small hamburgers. We’d get home very late on a Sunday night, around two in the morning, and we’d have to take our instruments out of the car and get everything into the house. Then we’d have to wake up early and go to school.
After success at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Joe loaded up the VW van for a longer trip — to New York City, where his sons would compete in the most famed amateur hour in the country, at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The Jacksons had received enough critical acclaim to be placed in the more advanced “Superdog” rounds.
JACKIE: Back in those days, it was pretty rough at the Apollo if the crowd didn’t like you. They would boo and throw eggs. Before we went on stage, Michael was in the wings and he saw how the crowd was treating the acts they didn’t like and he was crying. He was scared because he thought they were going to do the same thing to us. I told him, “Michael, pull yourself together. Just do what you’ve been doing. Everything will be okay.” We performed and we got a standing ovation. After, the crowd went crazy and I started crying. My eyes got so watery with joy, and I saw that Michael was happy, too. The audience in New York loved him and they loved the group. Back home in Gary, Joe approached a local label about signing the Jackson Five. In 1968, the Steeltown imprint released Big Boy, produced by one of the company’s owners, Gordon Keith. The boys spent several consecutive Saturdays at Steeltown studios recording a number of tracks.
TITO: It felt good to have a single out. It made us feel like we were getting somewhere. We saw our record selling in stores. But we didn’t realise what a small level we were at in Gary, compared to the world. As a hometown success story, the Jackson Five were popular enough to garner airplay for Big Boy on local radio station WWCA, 1270 on the AM dial. The family had advance word that the station was going to play the single for the first time, and they all gathered around the radio to hear the inaugural airplay. Big Boy was enough of a regional success that Atlantic Records made a deal to distribute the single nationally through its Atco imprint. The New York-based company pressed an additional 10,000 copies, but the song’s popularity didn’t spread very far beyond the borders of Gary. Katherine expressed to Joe her worry that the boys were growing too old and that their chances to be signed to a national label were fading.
MARLON: We knew nothing about golf. He gave us a 7-iron to make the putt. You can’t make a putt with a 7-iron. I know that today, but none of us did back then. On March 11, 1969, the lives of the Jackson brothers changed forever when they signed their contract with Motown. “I was overjoyed,” Katherine wrote in her autobiography My Family, The Jacksons. “Not only did the Motown deal mean possible stardom for the Jackson Five, but it also meant certain escape from Gary for the Jackson family.”