Authors: Jermaine Jackson
Until, that is, the day Joseph made a unilateral decision in the interests of our group. His VW van, which had replaced his old Buick, pulled up outside and he started unloading microphones, stands, amplifiers, tambourines, a keyboard, drum-set and speakers. It was like the Christmas we were never allowed. Mother was breathless with anger. ‘Joseph!’ she said, rushing outside as he
pulled our new instruments out of the van. ‘What have you done? What is all this stuff?’ We were too excited to know which ‘toy’ to play with first. Mother trailed Joseph as he went back and forth between living room and van. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she said. ‘We can’t dress our children in new clothes and Jackie has holes in his shoes, this place is falling to pieces, and you’ve gone and bought instruments?’
As with everything in our household, Joseph’s decision was final. He said it was a necessary investment, ‘if we are to support our boys.’
I had never really heard our parents fight before because Mother usually stepped down, but this time he had crossed the line. Not only had he failed to consult her, he had used most of her precious savings. ‘You’ll get your new room, Katie,’ he said. ‘We’re going to move to California and then I’ll buy you a bigger house, but our boys can’t perform without instruments!’ On several nights, we heard raised voices from their bedroom. Mother was worried that he was chasing a pipe-dream and building up our hopes, leading us towards disappointment. Joseph was adamant that he was doing the right thing, and he needed her support. This was how he expressed his love for us – by believing in our talent. Where Mother soaked us in love and affection, Joseph compensated with what she lacked: confidence and belief. In terms of what children should receive from two parents, these opposites weighed themselves out evenly. Mother tended to look pragmatically at life, whereas Joseph was more ‘speculate to accumulate’. His tough love was expressed not in affection or being tactile, but in the focus and discipline he instilled and the respect he asked for. It was the love of a football coach, expressed with a heart that was all about winning the game. A slap on the back, a smile on his face, and an excited clap of the hands was his way of expressing admiration. It was his
way of knowing how to express his love.
There was tension in the house for a few weeks, but eventually Mother calmed down and agreed to trust Joseph’s gamble. We just didn’t see the chips being pushed on to the red square in our name.
THE RADIO CRACKLED INTO ITS BROADCAST
and that night in 1964, the house was the quietest it had ever been. ‘Good evening, sports fans across the land,’ the boxing commentator announced, ‘and now the questions will be answered. Liston in the white trunks with the black stripes. Clay – half an inch taller – in the white trunks and the red stripes …’ It amazed me that this man could take us there, painting a picture so vivid that we could ‘see’, heightening Joseph’s tension as he hunched forward in his kitchen chair, pulled up alongside the radio on the side cabinet. ‘The Heavyweight Championship of the World,’ the voice continued. ‘If it goes past the first round, there will be surprises already …’
We heard the bell. The crowd roared. We pictured the contender, Cassius Clay, the man from Louisville, Kentucky, springing from his corner to take on the reigning champ, Sonny Liston. ‘AND HERE THEY COME!’
Even before the 22-year-old Cassius Clay became known as Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest’, we were rooting for him because Joseph loved his boxing and said we should cheer the underdog who had the fire to take on the best. Joseph had boxed competitively as a teenager in Oakland and he always had Tito, Jackie and me on the front lawn with our red gloves on, teaching us ‘never be afraid of no one’. He’d referee bouts with other kids from the street and Michael would sit on the front step shouting, ‘Hit him! Hit him! Hit him!’
Joseph taught us technique and how to defend ourselves. ‘No one beats a Jackson,’ he said, and no one ever did. Joseph said he had trained using one of Papa Samuel’s solid oak doors, not a punchbag – it strengthened the callouses and toughened the mind. He was the strongest, hardest, toughest man we knew and I’m sure he imagined himself in the ring as we gathered around the radio.
As we listened, he couldn’t help making a link between entertainment and boxing. ‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee – that’s what you need to be doing onstage,’ he said, using Clay’s boast from a press conference earlier that week. Joseph found these
convenient associations everywhere and disguised them as lessons. He did it with Jim Brown of the Cleveland Bears whenever we talked football. The No. 32 and the greatest running back of all time was an example of dedication: ‘Never missed a game or a training session in nine years because he knows you’ve got to work at being the best.’
He even hid lessons in the chores he made us do. That pile of bricks in the backyard – the ones Mother now knew would never be built on to the house – still served a purpose. There must have been 100 of those real heavy cinder-block bricks sitting in a stack at the left of the house. Our job was to carry them, one by one, to the other side and build a new stack. It was a pointless exercise, but we didn’t ask why; we just did as we were told. When Joseph returned home, he inspected our work. Every brick had to be flush, and every line must be straight, running down the pile. ‘No … do it again. I want them stacked evenly,’ he said – and we moved them from right to left until we had it
. We learned discipline and perfection through cuts, blisters and grazes. Work as a team. Do it right. No room for error. If one person is off, it messes up everyone else – and messes up ‘the look’. Noted for choreographic reasons.
All this might explain why some of us turned into obsessive compulsives as adults. Whenever Michael walked into a room and saw a pillow ‘out of place’, he’d change it. ‘This is bothering me,’ he’d say with a smile. Same with me. Same with Rebbie. ‘Remember the bricks?’ we’d say, and then we’d fall about laughing.
So when Cassius Clay arrived on the boxing scene, he presented Joseph with the perfect new example to fold into his lectures. Because here was someone
, who was doubted by the experts yet supreme in his confidence. As we huddled around the radio, Michael and Marlon started shadow boxing to one side as the commentator took us through the first round. Sonny Liston was missing more punches than he landed. ‘That’s all about footwork,’ Joseph said. Mother muttered something about not agreeing with a violent sport but Joseph wasn’t listening – he was too busy
translating the commentary. ‘Sonny Liston is like your audience … You’ve got to go out there, tear up the stage and lay ’em out flat!’
That night Cassius Clay won and became the youngest boxer ever to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. ‘I shook up the world,’ he told the media. Point made – both in the ring and in the minds of the kids he had no idea were rooting for him in Gary, Indiana.
ON THE GRASS BETWEEN OUR BEDROOM
window and 23rd Avenue, there was a tree. During high winds and the tornado warnings that swept across Indiana, Michael and I watched from the window to see how strong that tree really was. It was endlessly fascinating to observe the bout between Mother Nature and the muscle of
tree. It bowed and bent, and ducked and dived like Ali, but it never snapped or uprooted. In my mind, the strongest trees represent family: the parents are the trunk – providing stability – and the branches are the children, sprouting new life in different directions. But everyone belongs to the same tree from the same seed: forever solid, whatever weathers it may face.
I once shared this analogy with Michael and he turned it into a plaque at Neverland. It had been inspired, no doubt, by Joseph telling us as children that our family’s roots were as deep and entwined as a tree’s. A solid family was important to our parents, both of whom came from broken homes. The tug-of-war between his own parents was something Joseph didn’t wish to repeat. Mother’s parents had divorced after moving from Alabama to Indiana: she went to live with her father – Papa Prince – and her sister Hattie with her mother, Mama Martha. Mother and Joseph had vowed to build a family and stick together, preaching to us that nothing and no one should ever come between us.
Before the Jackson 5 ever went public, Joseph took us outside the house one Fall to give us a final lesson to carry through life. He led us to
tree. There were broken twigs strewn all around it and he bent down to collect six, of more or less equal length. He asked us to gather round and pay attention.
He reminded us about togetherness and always looking out for one another. Then he separated one twig from the rest and snapped it in half. ‘They can break one of you when you are separated …’ he said, leaving five thick twigs in his hand. He bunched them tight, side by side, and tried breaking them between his hands and over his knee. Try as he might, with a mill worker’s grip, he couldn’t. ‘… but when you stick together, you are unbreakable,’ he added.
IN TODAY’S LIGHT, I THINK IT
apt that our first true public performance as the Jackson 5 was on 29 August 1965: Michael’s seventh birthday. No one noticed it at the time. Birthdays were like Christmas: non-events that were not marked in the house of Jehovah. But at least Michael’s seventh birthday was different in that it wasn’t another ordinary, unremarkable day.
Evelyn Lahaie, the lady who first suggested our group name, invited us to take part in a child’s fashion event she had organised at the Big Top shopping centre on Broadway and 53rd. She was the commentator on a ‘Tiny Tots Jamboree’ and we were billed as ‘The Jackson Five Musical Group: Another Spectacular Little Folks Band’. All I remember is seeing a decent-sized crowd of young girls and Joseph telling us after the show to ‘get down there and start selling your photos.’
In our eyes, the jamboree was just a warm-up for the proper stage at Jackie and Rebbie’s school, Theodore Roosevelt High, a few months later in 1966. Mother had said at the mall that we’d get to perform at ‘nicer places’. The school held an annual talent
contest, featuring a variety of acts from around the city – Gary’s equivalent to
The Ed Sullivan Show
. We were the youngest act by far and couldn’t wait to get out there.
Backstage, Michael tapped the bongos he still played. Jackie rattled his Maracas and two band members joined us: local boys Earl Gault, our first drummer, and Raynard Jones, who played bass on a couple of occasions. The school hall was packed. It was a paying crowd, too – 25 cents a ticket. We also knew it would include some familiar faces, such as those who had been mushed-up against the living-room window, waiting to laugh at us.
When Tito went for our guitars – left leaning against a wall in the wings – he discovered someone had attempted sabotage by messing with the tuning pegs. Joseph’s advice – ‘Always check your tuning before going on’ – came good in plenty of time. ‘Someone doesn’t want you to win,’ he said, ‘so go out there and show ’em!’
He stood with us in the wings, looking nowhere near as confident as we felt. He was always tense before a show, whether it was the talent-show days or record-label years. For the duration of a set, he had no input and no control. But we couldn’t have been more ready. When we walked on, met by polite applause, we just switched to the auto-pilot of rehearsals. ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations was our opener. As everyone’s quiet curiosity sat in that gap between applause ending and music starting, I looked across to Tito and behind him, in the shadows, to Joseph. Still pensive. Raynard, on bass, gave the song’s intro that opening bounce … and in came Tito on guitar with the melody lick … and Jackie with his Maracas … and Michael poised with his bongos … and then I started to sing.
Our momentum built as I led the vocals into another Temptations number: the more up-tempo ‘Get Ready’. And Jackie, Marlon and Michael killed it front of stage, revving them up for Michael’s lead vocal finale – James Brown’s ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’. By his first verse, the crowd was on its feet. I looked to my right, for Joseph’s approval. Still pensive, arms by his
sides. Only his lips were moving as he mouthed the lyrics, fixated on Michael. ‘Eeeeeooowwww!’ Michael screamed. ‘I FEEEEL good …’ With his high-pitched, hyena-like screech, the crowd’s jaws opened as one and they screamed. Then, during our closer, ‘I Got The Feeling’, he made them feel it. He jumped out front of stage and started to dance; a choreographed whirling dervish. Aged seven.
We were not supposed to be this good, but Michael tore up the place. It didn’t matter that this was only our local school. When you’re kids, a screaming crowd is a screaming crowd.
Backstage, post-show, we jumped around, reliving it all. I guess it was like hitting a home-run or scoring a great goal. Joseph was … content. ‘Overall, you did good,’ he told us, ‘but we’ve got some work to do.’
Next thing I remember is the MC announcing us as winners. We bounded on stage. More screaming. Funnily enough, one of the acts we beat was Deniece Williams. A few years later, she released her chart topper ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’. We didn’t need Joseph’s approval that night: we were winners first time out and that was good by anyone’s standards.
We went home and celebrated with ice-cream all round. Joseph pointed to a proud corner of the living room – home to a small collection of baseball trophies, speaking to our other obsession in life. Those trophies stood as unintended props to support the one point he always made: being rewarded is about becoming the best.
FROM OUR BEDROOM WINDOW, WE HAD
an open view of the baseball field where we played, next to Theodore Roosevelt High. Had you asked us back then to choose between the musical dream or the sporting dream, I think we’d have opted for baseball. Especially Jackie, the jock of the family. Whenever he was in trouble with Joseph and wanted to run, we always knew where to find him: the dug-out across the way, in front of the bleachers, tossing a ball between hand and glove.
We’d have opted for the baseball dream for the simple reason that it seemed more realistic and three of us were already decent juniors. The miniature gold players swinging a bat on the podium of our trophies were testament to the glory and championships won with the Katz Kittens – the team we played for in Gary’s Little League baseball. We grew up watching the Chicago Cubs, aspiring to follow its stars: Ernie Banks, their first black player, and Ron Santo.
Jackie was so good he had people scouting him and he felt sure a contract was imminent. He was a great pitcher and batsman, hitting home run after home run. Baseball was where his heart was, more than any of us. At games, Michael was like our mini-mascot, sitting with Marlon and Joseph in the bleachers, wearing his mini green-and-white jersey, which came down to the knees of his jeans, chewing his red shoestring candy and cheering whenever one of us got the ball. One weekday evening, there was a ‘big game’ – a playoff or something – with some local rival. I was playing outfield, Tito was on second and Jackie was pitcher. We had started to earn a bit of a reputation as ‘The Jackson Boys’ and Jackie’s pitching was key to that hard-earned kudos.
During the warm-up, the coach hit balls into the air as catch practice and he hit one fly-ball that bounced off the clouds before it came back down. We were always taught to call it, so I ran and kept my eye on the ball, yelling, ‘MINE! I got it …’ Wesley, our catcher who had torn off his mask, was running for the same ball, but he didn’t call it and didn’t hear me. He just kept his eye on the falling ball. Then BOOM! We collided. For the first time, I saw stars without feeling Joseph’s belt on my behind. Wesley’s forehead hit me across the right eye and split me wide open. He was out cold and blood was everywhere. I remember seeing concerned faces peering down but then they parted as Joseph’s face came into full focus. His pained expression didn’t leave me all the way to the hospital or even as a doctor sewed me up with 14 butterfly stitches. I was bruised, swollen and messed up – my ‘image’ as an entertainer had been put at risk. As Mother thanked God that my sight
was not impaired, Joseph cursed himself for allowing such an injury to take place. Then he made the swiftest decision. ‘No more baseball for you, Jermaine,’ he announced. ‘None of you. No more baseball! It’s too dangerous.’
I don’t remember much else about that night except Jackie’s grief for the dream that had ended all because one boy didn’t call the ball. ‘One day you’ll thank me,’ Joseph told him unsympathetically. ‘You’re too young to understand.’
AS ROOSEVELT HIGH’S TALENT CONTEST CHAMPIONS,
we entered another competition that pitched us against the winning finalists from other schools in the area. We won that, too, and the
’s flashbulb captured our triumph and trophy for posterity in black-and-white. I remember that grainy photo because of the giant bandage still plastered over my right eyebrow. The importance of first place –
trophy – became obvious on the one occasion we
win. It was at Horace Mann High and the reason it sticks in my mind is because of the prize we received for coming second: a brand new colour television.
The problem was that Joseph didn’t take losing very well, so none of us knew how to behave in defeat. We knew there was nothing to gloat about, but there didn’t seem any great reason to be disappointed either. It was Marlon who broke the ice as we packed our stuff and headed out. ‘Least we won a colour TV!’ he said, speaking for everyone as we sensed the end of watching programmes through the coloured hues of a plastic sheet.
But Joseph didn’t see any consolation in the prize. ‘There is only one winner, and winning is about being number one, not number two!’ he said, sharing his stare equally among us. We didn’t collect our colour TV that day: Joseph said we didn’t deserve it. There is no reward for second place.
I WISH I HAD ARCHIVED THOSE
precious times and kept a diary or maintained a scrapbook, especially now that Michael has gone. A deep loss makes you grasp at nostalgia, wanting to recall every
last detail of every experience you once took for granted. Things happened and moved so fast that performances and years have merged into one. In my mind, those early years of the Jackson 5 are a bit like a high-speed rail journey: the places
whizzed by, and it’s only the departure, the destination, and certain memorable stations that remain vivid. Between 1966 and 1968, most weekends were spent on the road building our reputation. We played before a mix of audiences: the friendly, the enthusiastic, the drunken and the indifferent. Usually, just the sight of five kids walking on stage got people’s attention and the ‘cute’ factor was on our side, especially with Michael and Marlon up front. It was the best feeling when our performances animated a reserved crowd.
Mr Lucky’s, the main tavern in Gary, was where we spent many week-nights and where we earned our first performance fee: $11, split between us. Michael spent his on candy, which he shared with other kids in the neighbourhood. ‘He earns his first wage and spends it on candy to give to other kids?’ said Joseph, bemused. But when it came to ‘share and share alike’, Michael wore the shiniest halo; we were always encouraged by Mother to think of others and do the good deed.
Meanwhile, our parents backed our progress by investing in a ‘wardrobe’. Our customary uniform was either a white shirt, black bell-bottomed pants and red cummerbund, or a forest-green shiny suit with crisp white shirt. Mother had made all the alterations to our suits on her sewing-machine and a lady named Mrs Roach sewed ‘J5’ into the jacket breast pockets. I remember that detail because she sewed them on crooked and something felt imperfect but, for once, uncorrectable.
If we weren’t performing at Mr Lucky’s, we were at the supper club Guys and Gals, or the High Chaparral on the south side of Chicago. Often, we didn’t go on stage until 11.30pm on school nights and didn’t arrive home until 2am with school the next day: five brothers always asleep as we pulled into the driveway of 2300 Jackson Street.
One show night, we arrived outside some hotel in Gary and soon understood our city’s reputation as a rough place, infamous for crime. Folklore had it that if you dug deep enough you’d find the roots of the OGs – the original gangsters – before gang culture spread east to New York. I don’t know about that. All I know is that we discovered being ‘local’ offered no immunity from violence. It was dusk and we were carrying our equipment inside via the back entrance when Joseph was stopped by five thuggish 20-something men. ‘Do you want some help with that?’ asked one, grabbing a mic stand.
Joseph thought he was being robbed so he refused to let go of the stand and pushed away the man. The next two or three minutes happened quickly as all of them turned on him and he hit the ground under a windmill of punches. Michael and Marlon screamed, ‘JOSEPH! JOSEPH! No! No!
’ The gang started using our drumsticks and mic stands as weapons. Joseph curled into a ball, covered his face with his forearms and took the beating.
Meanwhile, Michael had sprinted to the nearest phone booth at the bottom of the street and called the police. ‘I couldn’t reach, so I had to jump up to drop the coin into the slot!’ he said afterwards. By the time he ran back, the gang had fled and Joseph was being helped to his feet by hotel management. He got hurt real bad: his face was mashed up and had already started to swell. Someone ran inside to grab some ice and he used it to wrap the hand he had fractured. He had also suffered a broken jaw. Sitting on the bumper at the back of the van, he steadied himself. Then, through one-and-a-half eyes, he looked at us: ‘I’m okay.’ He told Michael and Marlon to wipe their tears. ‘You can’t perform in that state,’ he said.
‘You want us to go on?’ asked Jackie, incredulous.
‘People are here to see you – people are
to see you,’ he said, gingerly getting to his feet. ‘I’ll go to the doctor in the morning.’ That night, we had to pull ourselves together and focus on our performance. Joseph was ever-present, nursing his hand, with Band Aids on his face. He had taught us another hard, if unintentional lesson: whatever happens, the show must go on.
I DON’T REMEMBER DOING HOMEWORK ON
school nights. We ate dinner and got ready to perform. Homework assignments were something we crammed in at weekends or scribbled in bed in the mornings. That was when our childhood started to become eclipsed by adult duties. There was always a new show to prepare for, a new routine to rehearse, or a new town to conquer.
Aged nine, Michael had to grow up fast. As we all did. We now had a profession where other kids had nothing to do but play all the time. But had it been any other way, we might never have broken through as the Jackson 5, and the world would never have known Michael’s music. Things were as they were meant to be. We found real joy on stage: we looked forward to it in the same way that other kids looked forward to whatever pastime brought them enjoyment.