You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes (10 page)

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Their combined energy was relentless, running around the house, inside and out, screaming, laughing, shouting. That double-act often drove Mother to distraction as she tried to prepare dinner. She’d spin around, grab them in mid-run by both arms and drill her middle knuckle into their temples.

‘Ow!’

‘You boys need to calm down!’ she’d say.

And they did. For about 20 minutes. Then, they would be at the bedroom window playing ‘Army’ – two broomsticks poking out the window, ‘shooting’ at passers-by.

Tito and I were each other’s shadows, too, and Mother dressed us alike, leaving our clothes as the hand-me-down wardrobe for our younger brothers. We used to boss Michael and Marlon, telling them to go get stuff for us, do this and do that, but we tended to give Jackie his space because he was older and crankier, and Randy was the baby brother still curious about everyone and anything.

Out of all of us, people outside the family found Michael hard to figure out because he only came alive in two certain places: in
the privacy of our own home, and onstage. He had all this energy and focus when it came to the Jackson 5; no other child could have looked so sure and commanding as he. To watch him on stage was to witness a supreme, precocious confidence but in the school playground he seemed withdrawn until spoken to.

One of Michael’s closest buddies was a boy named Bernard Gross. He was close to both of us, really, but Michael liked him a lot. He thought ‘he was like a little teddy bear’ – all chubby-faced and round, someone who blushed when he laughed. He was the same age as me, but the same height as Michael, and I think Michael liked the fact that an older kid wanted to be
his
friend. Bernard was the nicest kid. We all felt for him because he was raised by a single mum and we struggled to understand how that could ever feel: the loneliness of being an only child. I think that’s why we embraced him as a rare friend; the one outsider given honorary membership to the Jackson brothers’ club.

Michael hated it when Bernard cried. He
hated
seeing him get upset over anything and if he did, Michael cried with him. My brother developed empathy and sensitivity at an early age. But Bernard felt for us, too. Once, Joseph told me to go out into the snow to buy some Kool-Aid from the store and I refused. He banged me across the head with a wooden spoon several times. I cried all the way there and all the way back, and Bernard walked with me to make me feel better. ‘Joseph scares me,’ he said.

‘Could be worse.’ I sniffled.

Could be worse. Might not have a father at all
, I thought.

 

ONE OF THE BIGGEST EDUCATIONAL FORCES
musically in Michael’s life was the emergence of Sly and the Family Stone. We were inspired to listen to them by Ronny Rancifer, our newly recruited keyboardist from Hammond, East Chicago, an extra-tall body to squeeze into the back of the VW camper van. His lively spirit added to the jovial atmosphere on the road, and he, Michael and I would dream about one day writing songs together. Which was why he made us take a look at the brothers Sly and Freddie
Stone, keyboardist sister Rose and the rest of the seven-strong group that blew up in 1966/7 as their posters found their place into our bedroom alongside those featuring James Brown and the Temptations. With tight pants, loud shirts, psychedelic patterns and big Afros, this new group represented a visual explosion and we loved everything about their songs, the lyrics inspired by themes of love, harmony, peace and understanding, as epitomised by their 1968 hit ‘Everyday People’. They brought to the world music that was ahead of its time: R&B fused with Rock fused with Motown.

Michael thought Sly was the ultimate performer and described him as ‘a musical genius.’ ‘Their sound is different, and each one of them is different,’ he said. ‘They’re together, but also strong independently. I like that!’

Like the rest of us, Michael had started to sense that we could match Joseph’s belief. We released one more single on the Steeltown label, ‘We Don’t Have To Be 21 To Fall In Love’, but we wanted more than regional success.

 

IN THE SUMMER, WE ALWAYS SLEPT
with our bedroom window open to feel the cooling night breeze, but this worried Joseph because we lived in a high-crime area. What he didn’t know until we were older was that the chief reason we left it open was for daytime access when we wanted to skip school. Michael was far too well-behaved to take part in such a thing, but when I didn’t feel like class, I’d walk out the front door, peel away from the crowd, hide and return home via the window. I hid in the closet – the den-like hideout space we used – and sat there, or slept, with my stash of candy or salami sandwiches. Tito and I used this space as our hideout for years. Come home time, I’d jump outside and return through the front door.

Eventually Joseph grew tired of yelling about the open window. One night, he waited until we were all asleep, went outside and crept in through the window, wearing an ugly, scary mask. As this large silhouette clambered into our bedroom legs first, five boys woke and screamed the house down. Michael and Marlon
apparently just held on to one another, scared witless. Joseph turned on the lights and removed his mask: ‘I could have been someone else. Now, keep the window closed!’

There were a few nightmares in that bedroom afterwards, mainly in the middle bunk, but to suggest – as some have – that Michael was deeply traumatised and scarred by this event is laughable. Joseph
always
used to wear masks and get his thrills from jumping out of the shadows, creeping up behind us or placing a fake spider or rubber snake in the bed, especially at Hallowe’en. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, Michael found it hilarious, revelling in the scary thrill. If anyone was harmed by the new policy to close the window, it was me: it forced an improvement in my school attendance record.

 

JOSEPH ENTERED US IN A TALENT
contest at the Regal Theatre, Chicago, and we won hands down. We kept returning and kept winning, taking the honours for three consecutive Sundays. In those days, the reward for such a hat-trick was to be invited back for a
paid
evening performance and that was how we found ourselves sharing a bill with Gladys Knight & the Pips, newly signed by Motown Records.

At rehearsals, we were midway through our routine when I looked to the wings to find the usual sight of Joseph accompanied by the unusual sight of Gladys Knight. As she tells it, she ‘heard some performance, jumped up and said, “Who is that?”’ When we came offstage, Joseph told us that she wanted to meet us in her dressing room. It was a big deal because she and the Pips were all the rage, having broken into the charts the previous year with their No. 2 hit ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’.

We shuffled into her room, led by Joseph. I don’t know what she must have thought when five shy brothers walked in, considering the performance that had grabbed her attention. Michael was so small that when he sat down on the sofa, his legs dangled off the end.

‘Your father tells me that you boys have big futures ahead of you,’ she said.

We nodded.

Gladys looked at Michael. ‘You enjoy singing?’

‘Yeah,’ said Michael.

She glanced at the other four of us. We all nodded. ‘You boys should be at Motown!’

That was the night Joseph asked Gladys if she could get someone from Motown to watch one of our performances. She promised she’d make that call, and she couldn’t have been more sincere.

Back home, Joseph told Mother that it was only a matter of time before the phone rang. But it never did.

As it turned out, Gladys was as good as her word because we later learned she had called Taylor Cox, an executive at Motown, but there was no interest higher up the ladder. Berry Gordy, the founder of the label, wasn’t looking for a kid group. He’d been there, done that with Stevie Wonder, and he didn’t want the headache of hiring tutors or the Board of Education’s restrictions on working hours.

Meanwhile, Joseph kept us on the road and we kept plugging away at the Regal and places like the Uptown Theater, Philadelphia, and the Howard Theater, Washington DC. Our road led towards ‘The Chitlin’ Circuit’ – the collective name given to a host of venues in the south and east of the country, showcasing predominantly new African-American acts. These were our ‘roughing-it years’, when the professional stage educated us in the dos and don’ts of live performance. And all the time, we just kept performing and pushing our Steeltown 45s.

CHAPTER FIVE
Cry Freedom

‘IF THEY LIKE YOU HERE, THEY’LL
like you anywhere,’ Joseph said, in the van
en route
to New York City. Destination: the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem – a place ‘where stars are made’.

All the way from Indiana, he talked up a storm about what this venue meant and the singers who had triumphed here: Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, tap-dancer Bill ‘Bo Jangles’ Robinson … and James Brown. In an era when black faces on television were still relatively rare, the Apollo was
the
platform for African-American acts. ‘But if you get it wrong, make a mistake, this audience will turn on you. Tonight, you have to be on your game,’ he continued.

We honestly weren’t intimidated: we knew that winning over the crowd meant we’d be walking through a door towards bigger things, so what greater motivation could there be for young boys with a dream? Sometimes there were benefits to being lambs in the entertainment industry – our innocence made us blind to the enormity of certain occasions. We pulled up beneath the Apollo sign, which hung vertically, lit sunset orange at night.

When we first went in, the walls were lined with the photographs of legends. We walked the corridors and then noticed the shabby carpet. Joseph asked us to imagine the feet that had worn it away; to imagine the kind of shoes we were walking in. We had our own dressing room with a mirror surrounded by light-bulbs and a chrome clothes rack on wheels. And the microphones popped up electronically from beneath the stage, all space age.

Inside our dressing room, Michael stepped up on a seat with Jackie and pushed up the window to look out. ‘There’s a basketball court!’ shouted Jackie. That brought a new burst of excitement. We wanted to get outside and shoot some baskets, but then Joseph walked in. Everyone jumped into line and pretended to be focused again. Time to get serious. I don’t know if Joseph ever realised how nonchalant we were on the inside about performing, but he knew Harlem wasn’t Chicago. The Apollo crowd was well versed in entertainment: it knew its music. If things went badly, disgruntled murmurs grew into boos, followed by missiles of tin cans, fruit and popcorn. When things went well, they were up on their feet, singing, clapping and dancing. No one walked off the Apollo stage and asked, ‘How did I do?’

Before going on, we sensed the buzz of a full house. Michael and Marlon stood in front of Tito, Jackie, Johnny and me in the shadows and whoever was on before us wasn’t getting the greatest reaction. The boos were loud and unforgiving. Then a can landed onstage, followed by an apple core. Marlon, startled, turned to us. ‘They’re throwin’ stuff!’

Joseph looked at us as if to say, ‘I’m telling you …’

Between the curtains, backstage and hidden from public view, there was a section of tree trunk. It was the Apollo’s ‘Tree of Hope’ chopped from a felled tree that had once stood in the Boulevard of Dreams, otherwise known as Seventh Avenue, between the old Lafayette Theater and Connie’s Inn. In an ancient superstition, black performers touched that tree, or basked beneath its branches, for good luck. It had come to symbolise hope for African-American acts in the same way that the tree outside our home symbolised
unity. Michael and Marlon duly stroked the ‘Tree of Hope’, but I don’t think Lady Luck had anything to do with the performance we gave that night.

We rocked the Apollo and the crowd was soon on its feet. I don’t think we brought a finer performance to any venue in our pre-Motown days and we ended up winning the Superdog Amateur Finals Night. We must have impressed management because we were invited back … this time as paid performers. That May of 1968, we were on the same bill for an Apollo night with Etta James, the Coasters and the Vibrations. We knew we’d done good at the highest level. What we didn’t know was that a television producer had been sitting in the audience, taking notes and developing a keen interest.

 

A SHORT JEWISH LAWYER WHO ALWAYS
wore suits arrived on the scene. Apparently Richard Aarons had knocked on Joseph’s hotel-room door in New York and sold his services. We were introduced to the debonair and playful Richard as the man ‘who is helping us get to where you need to be.’ As the son of the chairman of a musicians’ union in New York, Richard had useful connections.

Straightaway, Richard put together a professional pitch-package that contained our Steeltown hits, newspaper cuttings of rave reviews, promotional material and a letter explaining why the Jackson 5 should be given a chance. It was dispatched to labels such as Atlantic, CBS, Warner and Capitol. In addition, Joseph personally mailed a package to Motown Records in Detroit, addressed to Mr Berry Gordy, hoping to follow up on Gladys Knight’s recommendation. Apparently he used to tell Mother: ‘I’m going to take the boys to Motown if it’s the last thing I do!’

Many weeks later, and with us still technically attached to Steeltown Records, Joseph brought in an envelope, opened it and our demo tape slid out on to the table … Returned and rejected by Motown.

 

THE BEST THING ABOUT JOURNEYING THE
Chitlin’ Circuit was the feeling that we were always tiptoeing in the shadows of the greats. We had already found ourselves in the dressing room of Gladys Knight and on the same stage as the Delfonics, the Coasters, the Four Tops and the Impressions but two thrilling ‘meets’ were golden and both at the Regal in Chicago.

On the first occasion, we were either waiting for Smokey Robinson to head to rehearsal or go onstage to perform. I can’t remember which. But Joseph reassured us that if we hung around and behaved ourselves, we’d get to meet the greatest songwriter of all time. That was one of the few times we’d ever feel butterflies in the stomach: getting ready to meet one of our heroes was more nerve-racking than performing.

When Smokey walked up to us and stopped to talk, we couldn’t believe he was actually taking time out for us. But there he stood, in a black turtleneck and pants, smiling broadly and shaking our hands, asking who we were and what we did. Michael was always intrigued by another artist’s way of doing things. He peppered Smokey with questions. How did you write all those songs? When do the songs come to you? I don’t remember the answers but I’ll guarantee that Michael did. Smokey gave us a good five minutes – and when he walked away, you know what we talked about? His hands. ‘Did you feel how
soft
his hands were?’ whispered Michael.

‘No wonder,’ I said. ‘He ain’t done nothing but write songs.’

‘They were softer than Mother’s!’ Michael added.

When we burst through the door in Gary, it was the first thing we told Mother, too. ‘MOTHER! We met Smokey Robinson – and you know how soft his hands were?’

That’s what people forget. We were fans long before we became anything else.

The day we met Jackie Wilson we advanced one stage further with our VIP access: we were invited into his hallowed dressing room. It was ‘hallowed’ because, to us, he was the black Elvis before the white Elvis had come along, one of those
once-in-every-generation entertainers. Jackie and his revue were regular headliners at the Regal so our sole focus that day was to meet him. After Joseph had had a word with someone, we got the ‘Okay, five minutes’ privilege that our boyhood cuteness often bought. I’ll say this about our father: he knew how to open doors.

This big-name door opened and we entered single file from the darkness of the corridor into the brightness cast by the light-bulbs arcing around the dressing-table mirror, where Jackie was seated with his back to us. He had a towel wrapped into a thick collar to protect his white shirt from the foundation and eye-liner he was self-applying.

It was Michael who spoke up first, politely wondering if he could ask him some questions.

‘Sure, go ahead, kid,’ said Jackie, speaking to our reflections in his mirror.

He then bombarded him with questions. How does it feel when you go on stage? How much do you rehearse? How young were you when you started? My brother was relentless in his quest for knowledge.

But it was Joseph who handed us the biggest piece of information to take away that night: he told us that some of Jackie Wilson’s songs had been written by none other than Mr Gordy, the founder of Motown. (‘Lonely Teardrops’ had been Mr Gordy’s first No. 1.)

In meeting both Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson, we all knew theirs was the level where we needed to be. Maybe that was what Joseph had been doing all along: introducing us to the kings so that we, too, would want to rule. It was almost like he was saying, ‘This can be you – but you’ve got to keep working at it.’

I wish I could remember the pearls of show-business wisdom that each man left us with – because each one had ‘sound advice’, according to Joseph – but those words are now buried treasure somewhere deep in my mind. Michael hoarded these influences, absorbing every last detail: the way they talked, moved, spoke – and how their skin looked and felt. He watched them on stage with the scrutiny of a young director, focusing on Smokey’s words,
focusing on Jackie’s feet. Then, in the van going home afterwards, he became the most vocal and animated out of all of us: ‘Did you hear when he said …’ or ‘Did you notice that …’ or ‘Did you see Jackie do that move …’ My brother was a master studier of people and never forgot a thing, filing it away in a mental folder he might well have called ‘Greatest Inspirations & Influences’.

 

WE WERE NOW EARNING ABOUT 500
dollars a show and our father worked us harder than ever, with an unremitting expectation of precision. ‘We’ve done this over and over. WHY are you forgetting what to do?’ he shouted, when a song or a move broke down – and then reminded us that James Brown used to fine his Famous Flames whenever they made a mistake.

But fines weren’t Joseph’s choice of sanction. Whippings were. Marlon got it the most because he was singled out as the weak link in the chain. It’s true that he wasn’t the most co-ordinated, and he had to work 10 times harder than the rest of us, but none of us saw anything in him that hampered our performance. But Marlon became the excuse for Joseph to cram in extra rehearsal time and keep us indoors more. It would turn out there was a deeper reason behind all this, but that would dawn later.

One time there was a step Marlon just couldn’t master and Joseph’s patience snapped. He ordered him outside to get a ‘switch’ – a skinny branch – from the tree outside. We watched as Marlon chose the stick with which we knew Joseph was going to beat him – from the very tree he had used to symbolise family and unity. ‘When you forget,’ Joseph barked, ‘it’s the difference between winning and losing!’ As he struck Marlon on the back of the legs, Michael ran away in tears, unable to watch.

The sight of that switch made us all dig deeper in rehearsals but time and again, Marlon messed up. ‘BOY! Go out there and get a switch!’ Marlon tried to get clever – taking his time to find the skinniest, weakest branch to lessen the impact. ‘NO! You go back out there and get a bigger one!’ said Joseph. Marlon learned to scream louder than it actually hurt. That way, the beating stopped sooner.
What Marlon didn’t hear was the talk about turning the Jackson 5 into the Jackson 4.

‘He can’t do it, he’s out of step and out of tune, and he’s ruining our chances!’ Joseph told Mother. But over her dead body was Marlon going to be kicked out and scarred for life: Mother picked her battles, and Marlon stayed in the group.

I’ll say this about Marlon: he’s the most tenacious of us all. He knew his limits but never stopped trying to push beyond them. Whenever we took a break, he kept on practising. He even used the walk to school to rehearse. There we were, a group of brothers ambling to school, and Marlon broke out, dancing on the sidewalk, going through his steps, moving sideways.

From the middle bunk at bedtime, we heard Michael reassuring Marlon – ‘You’re doing good, you’ll get there, keep at it.’ At school, Michael would use break-time to show Marlon spins and different moves. As lovers of Bruce Lee movies, we had our own nunchucks – martial-art sticks – and Michael used to take them to school (rules were more lenient in the days when kids didn’t use weapons to harm one another). Michael and Marlon were like poetry in motion, using the
nunchaku
techniques to practise fluidity, flexibility and grace in movement. I think this was why Marlon eventually became an accomplished dancer, too – because he put in the extra hours. But Michael hated Joseph using his own excellence as the measure by which he judged his brother. He hated the way that such unforgiving scrutiny always planted doubt: ‘Was that good enough? Was that what he wanted? Did I make a mistake?’ – the early whisperings of a rabid self-doubt that would compel each one of us to worry if our best was our best.

Maybe the resentment this stoked was what lay behind Michael’s rebellion. During rehearsals, if Joseph asked him to do a certain new step, or try a new move, Michael, whose developing freestyle required no instruction, refused. At the age of nine, he had turned from a compliant, ask-me-to-do-anything child into the stubborn kid with attitude. ‘Do it, Michael,’ said Joseph, glaring, ‘or there’ll be trouble!’

‘NO!’

‘I’m not going to ask you again.’

‘NO – I wanna go outside and play!’

Michael became one of those kids who strained against imposed order, pushing his luck more than we ever dared. Inevitably, he received the switch. Time and again, he stood at the tree, crying, trying to choose his branch. Buying time. I remember getting the switch once – for not doing some chore – but Marlon (for errors) and Michael (for blatant disobedience) received it the most.

There were times when Mother felt Joseph was administering his punishment too hard. ‘Stop, Joseph! Stop!’ she begged, trying to make him see through his red mist.

In time, Joseph would learn that the switch was not the most effective man-management tool because it made Michael recoil so far. He barricaded himself in the bedroom, or hid under the bed, refusing to come out – and that ate into precious rehearsal time. Once he screamed in Joseph’s face that he would never sing again if he laid another hand on him. It was left to us, the older brothers, to talk Michael down and coax him with candy: it was amazing what the prospect of a Jawbreaker could do.

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