Authors: Jermaine Jackson
With Mr Lucky’s and Guys and Gals offering us regular work, Joseph quit his canned-food-factory job and reduced his hours at The Mill to part-time day shifts. Our fees can’t have been all that good, but he maintained his gamble on the great future he banked on. Mother fretted, obviously, but Joseph reassured her that the momentum was building. She nodded silently in agreement and then, knowing Mother, she probably worried herself to sleep and said countless prayers to Jehovah.
What she didn’t immediately know was that some of the late-night acts that followed us included strippers. That was the variety of bar acts back then and we often came offstage to find half-naked ladies in fishnets and suspenders waiting in the wings. If Christmas and birthdays were a sin in the eyes of Jehovah, then sharing a venue with erotic strippers was tantamount to hanging with the Devil, so you can’t blame Joseph for not detailing our exact itinerary to Mother. But the game was up one night when a stray lacy accessory found its way into one of our bags. Mother marched out of our bedroom holding an elaborate nipple tassel between her fingers. ‘WHERE did THIS come from?’ For once in his life, Joseph was speechless. ‘You have our children up all night when they have school in the morning and you have them
peeking at NAKED women? WHAT kind of people do you have our sons mixing with? This is QUITE the life you are showing them, Joseph!’
We brothers viewed such incidents differently. In my mind, a woman’s body is hypnotic and beautiful, but Michael saw these women as degrading themselves to tease men, and men treating them like sex objects. Yes, he gawped and giggled like the rest of us, but his lasting impression formed differently. He always remembered one regular stripper – her name was Rosie – tossing her panties into the crowd and jiggling her bits as men tried to touch her. Michael always hid his eyes. ‘Awww, man! That’s awful. Why she do that?’
Mother has said that she didn’t realise there were strippers until she read Michael’s autobiography. I think that’s the ‘official’ line for the sake of the Kingdom Hall. Not that her objections had anything to do with being a Jehovah’s Witness. As she says, what mother of any faith would want her young sons mixing in such an environment so late at night? I think that was where the crucial difference lay between Mother and Joseph. She viewed us as her sons and often worried about the impact of all the performing and travelling, and to Joseph, perhaps, we were performers first and sons second; he regarded anything and everything as a necessary step in the right direction.
PERFORMING MIDWEEK WASN’T ENOUGH FOR JOSEPH.
Every weekend, he booked us anywhere he could find an opening, helped by two Chicago DJs, Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones. They acted as our club promoters and were also bookers for B.B. King and Curtis Mayfield, but their main job was on-air at Chicago-based WVON Radio, the most listened-to station in Gary. With Purvis working the graveyard shift and E. Rodney on days, they pushed soul music heavily, so our promotion was in good hands: black radio was the route-one approach to getting noticed back then. If you were ‘in’ with WVON, you were on the local recording industry’s radar.
Pervis, who always wore a grey-and-black fedora-type hat, had an Otis Redding look about him and he hyped us up by telling people, ‘Just wait till you see these kids perform!’ Joseph cursed about Pervis’s cheques occasionally bouncing, but what Pervis lacked in financial reliability, he compensated for by spreading the word. He and E. Rodney Jones waved our flag like no one else.
As a result, we five piled ourselves – and our instruments – into Joseph’s VW camper van while Mother and Rebbie stayed at home with La Toya, Randy and baby Janet. For a while we saw more of school and the insides of clubs and theatres than we did of the four walls of our own home. Our VW ‘tour bus’ had two seats up front, with the middle seats removed to make room for the amps, guitars, drum-kit and other equipment. There was a bench seat at the rear but we would sit and sleep wherever we could prop our bodies, using the drum as a head rest. We couldn’t have been more tightly packed, but the journeys were full of jokes, laughter and song. As Joseph drove, we brothers went over the whole show in our heads, unprompted.
‘On this part, don’t forget we turn on this word …’ Jackie would say.
Or Tito: ‘At the beginning of the bridge, remember, throw your hands in the air.’
Or Michael: ‘Jackie, you’ll go one end of the stage, I’ll be in the middle. Marlon, you go the other side …’
This was how we prepared
: verbally walking through every routine. It didn’t matter that we were aged between seven and 17: there was no superiority in rank.
We each chipped in as equals and Michael, the youngest, was probably the most vociferous and creative. It wasn’t just the way he walked the walk that made him seem older than his years, it was the way he talked the talk, too. Due to Joseph’s conditioning, our focus was intense, but even as a boy Michael had something extra. He added dynamics that gave our choreography that extra punch and then, mid-performance, threw in his own freestyle section that took things to another level before falling seamlessly back into line.
I knew when he was about to bring it because just as the music started, he’d turn to me and wink.
Michael also emerged as a prankster. If one of us fell asleep with our mouth open, he tore off a piece of paper, wrote something silly like ‘My breath smells’, dabbed it with a wet finger and affixed it to the sleeper’s bottom lip. He found this stunt endlessly hilarious. If it wasn’t notes on lips, it was itching powder down the pants or a whoopie cushion placed on a seat. Michael was carving out his role as the principal jester of the pack.
In the summer of 1966, we drove the 1,500 miles to Arizona – stopping only for gas – to perform a set at the Old Arcadia Hall in Winslow, near Phoenix, because Papa Samuel lived nearby and wanted to show us off to his home crowd. It meant driving through Friday night and into Saturday, performing that night, then heading back to arrive home beyond midnight on Sunday for school the next day. Michael didn’t laugh much on that torturously long journey. What I vividly remember is sitting upfront with Joseph and at one point, he pulled over, put his hands over his face and started vigorously rubbing his cheeks. His eyes were watering. He caught me staring. ‘Just tired,’ he said. He took five minutes and we hit the road again.
By this time, we had a newly installed drummer named Johnny Jackson and despite what the marketing hype would later claim, he was no cousin and no distant relation. His surname was just a happy coincidence that future publicists would exploit. We found him because he attended Theodore Roosevelt High with Jackie and a local music teacher recommended him. Aged about 14, he was a bubbly, animated little guy with a cheeky smile. He was the best young drummer around for miles, as confident with his skill as Michael was with his dance. Johnny had a great back-beat and a strong-foot, and his timing was exquisite. He used to hit the drums so hard that we could feel the rhythm coming through our feet from the stage. Johnny Jackson helped make our sound.
Another addition to the ‘family’ was the nicest man – Jack Richardson, a friend of Joseph’s. He arrived as designated driver
because the endless miles became too much for our father. Jack would stick with us for years and become an integral part of the team. His hours behind the wheel without complaint told us how much he also believed in us. Wherever we were booked – Kansas City, Missouri, Ohio – Jack jumped up with enthusiasm.
Our marathon road trips were important, said Joseph, because ‘You need to appeal to white audiences as well as black audiences.’ He was determined to build for us an interracial fan base at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. As kids, the racial nuances went over our heads. It didn’t matter to us if the faces in the crowd were black or white and it didn’t affect how we performed. The audience reaction was always the same – they loved us.
ALL BUSINESS TALK WENT OVER OUR
heads, too: we just jumped into the van, showed up and performed. That was all we were interested in. As we hung around post-show in different venues and hotels, Joseph was busy hustling on our behalf, shaking hands and making connections. All we wanted was to go home but then he’d bring over some new ‘contact’ and we’d have to stop kicking our heels, reapply our show faces and smile. During our struggle for recognition, Joseph forever seemed to battle other people’s anxiety that a bunch of ‘minors’ could cut it. Typically, he was undeterred. He said that if Stevie Wonder could make it, then so could his kids.
And then came hope, in the face of a guitarist named Phil Upchurch, whom we met after some show in Chicago. Joseph told us enthusiastically how this artist had already worked with the likes of Woody Herman, Curtis Mayfield and Dee Clark. In 1961, he had released a single, ‘You Can’t Sit Down’, that sold more than one million copies. ‘Now, he’s going to work with you on a demo tape,’ announced Joseph. This was a big deal because Phil was an influential player on the scene in Detroit and we jumped around as if Jackie had just hit a forbidden home run.
Michael broke free from our elated huddle and hugged Phil around his legs. ‘Can I please have your autograph?’ Phil, no more than a fresh-faced 25-year-old, took out a scrap of paper from his jacket and scrawled a quick signature. Michael clutched it like a prize all the way home. What I love about this story is its postscript: decades later, Phil wrote to Michael and asked for
autograph. But he got more than that – he was invited to play guitar on ‘Working Day & Night’ from Michael’s first solo album,
Off the Wall
Back in Gary, 1967, Mother was more concerned about who was paying for the studio and copies of the tapes. ‘I am,’ said Joseph. ‘The momentum is just starting,’ he told her again.
I DON’T REMEMBER THE TRUE ORDER
of how everything happened next, but the facts are these: Phil Upchurch shared the same manager as R&B artist Jan Bradley. In 1963, she released her hit ‘Mama Didn’t Lie’. The man behind that song’s core arrangement was saxophonist and songwriter Eddie Silvers, formerly of Fats Domino and musical director at a fledgling label, One-derful Records. Within the six degrees of separation, Eddie wrote the song for our demo tape, ‘Big Boy’.
I suspect that Pervis Spann also played a role in this set-up but my memory betrays me. I have no idea why the One-derful label wasn’t interested in us, but the next thing we knew was that Steeltown Records were at the door in the shape of songwriter and founding partner Gordon Keith. When he turned up, Joseph wasn’t overly excited because he was a fellow steel-worker who had established this mini label with a businessman named Ben Brown the previous year. It hardly represented the great dream. But Keith was keen to sign us. Or, as Mother tells it, ‘He wanted you locked into a long-term thing, but Joseph said, “No, we’ve got lots of interest, I’m not doing it.” He was that desperate to sign you that they agreed to the shortest contract – six months.’
Joseph never viewed Steeltown as capable players in the big game, but he saw the value of a recording contract: it would lead to local-radio air time. ‘Big Boy’ was our first single released in
1967. According to Keith, it sold an estimated 50,000 copies throughout the Midwest and New York. We even made the Best Top 20 Singles in
magazine. But the greatest moment was when WVON Radio played it for the first time. We huddled around the radio, hardly believing our voices were coming out of that box. It was like the times when you’re handed a group photo and the first thing you do is find yourself and see how you look. It was the same with the radio – we listened for our own voices within the harmonies and background oohs. We had worked damn hard in that living room and suddenly we were being broadcast to most of Gary and Chicago: we were ecstatic.
WITH OUR HEARTS SET ON PERFORMANCE,
our academic education seemed almost irrelevant. It was hard to knuckle down when we knew our foundation in life was going to be the stage – and we knew Joseph knew it, too.
School actually made me feel sad because it divided us. It sent us our separate ways into different classrooms or, in Jackie and Tito’s case, different schools. I felt anxious without the brothers around me. I say ‘the brothers’ because we weren’t just siblings, we were a team. I found myself clock-watching, looking forward to the break when Marlon, Michael and I could get together again. Teachers mistook my listlessness for good behaviour so I became a teacher’s pet by default. I was one of those lucky students who didn’t have to try too hard to get B grades. As a result, I was trusted to go on errands – take this or carry that.
I used these ‘office-runs’ as an excuse to take a detour via Michael’s class, just to make sure he was okay. I’d stand in the corridor – with a clear view into his class through the open door, in a position where the teacher couldn’t spot me – and he was always concentrating intensely, head down writing or eyes fixed on the chalkboard. The kid sitting next to him would see me first and nudge him. His eyes darted between me and the teacher – he never liked getting into trouble. When her back was turned, he flashed a quick wave.
Mother found it curious that I checked up on him but, in my mind, I was just the older brother checking up on the younger brother. Doing my duty.
Michael applied himself better than I did at school. His thirst for knowledge was far greater than any of the rest of us. He was
curious kid who asked, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ and he listened to and logged every detail. I’m sure his head had an in-built recording chip for data, facts, figures, lyrics and dance moves.
I always walked Michael to school; he always ran home. The walk home from school mirrored the dynamics of our childhood, showing who was tightest with whom. Michael and Marlon ran around like Batman and Robin. In the street or on the athletics track, Michael always challenged Marlon to races – and always out-sprinted him. Marlon
being beaten … and then he’d accuse Michael of cheating and they’d start fighting, and Jackie had to break them up. It always puzzled Michael why things had to turn nasty. ‘I won fair and square!’ he’d say, sulking.